Rev. Donald M. Boyd, Inverness
A FREE CHURCH of Scotland minister has listed the issues that are at stake in the current struggle within his Church. Writing in the English Churchman (10/10/97), the Rev James I. Gracie states: “The issues at stake are not trivial, nor are they extreme. They include the doctrine of God as taught by our reformation fathers, the belief in a literal six day creation, the place of the Law in preaching, the power of the Magistrate, the papal Antichrist, the exercise of Biblical discipline, and purity of worship as presently practised within the Free Church. Recent writings and statements clearly suggest that these doctrines and practices are now at risk within the Free Church.”
Mr Gracie was responding to a letter from the editor of the Free Church magazine which also appeared in the English Churchman. The Rev Iain D. Campbell, the editor of the Free Church Monthly Record, suggested that the English Churchman was not the forum for discussing these matters. Mr Campbell referred to “a vociferous minority who have tried to hold the Church to ransom by their own brand of fanaticism”. This sort of language was highlighted by Mr Gracie as part of the problem within the Free Church. The English Churchman, a Protestant newspaper which serves mainly a Church of England constituency, carried two more letters from supporters of the Free Church Defence Association, the Rev Angus Smith and Mr Ewan Wilson.
These letters show the fruits of the Declaratory Act within the current Free Church of Scotland. Although the Free Church has always claimed that it rescinded the infamous Declaratory Act of 1892, the seeds of the Act have remained. Some ministers in the Free Church declare openly that they do not believe that the pope of Rome is the man of sin, but in doing so, they are acting as if they had a Declaratory Act in the Church.
Free Church Defence Association
The Free Church Defence Association (FCDA) was reconstituted in 1997 to resist the changing ethos in the Free Church, and in response to the formation of Free Concern, another group within the Church. Free Concern was created by those who were sympathetic to Professor Donald Macleod, following the decision in October 1996 of the Commission of Assembly to investigate the professor’s writings for alleged heresy. Free Concern set about the task of overturning this decision. Having secured this aim at a second Commission of Assembly later in the month, and when it was seen that its own formation had galvanised into action a more conservative section of the church to reconstitute the FCDA, Free Concern voluntarily disbanded. Then there were general appeals for the FCDA to disband also.
The FCDA has produced two issues of its magazine, Free Church Foundations. In its Statement of Aims we read that “their aims in the situation which confronts the Free Church of Scotland at the present time are: 1. To defend, maintain and promote the Biblical and Confessional doctrines and practice of the historic Free Church of Scotland. 2. To defend and promote the regulative principle in Divine worship and to resist innovations in worship not sanctioned by the Word of God.” The fourth aim is “to press for consistency in adherence to ordination vows on the part of ministers, professors and office-bearers of the Free Church”.
The second issue has an article on promise-keeping, which deals with various forms of promises, including ordination vows. Another article draws attention to “Professor Macleod’s Theology”. A letter of concern about his theology is reproduced, from the Synod of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Ireland, a Church in close fellowship with the Free Church. These are just some of the problems which beset the current Free Church of Scotland. Another list of problems appeared in the May 1996 issue of Auld Castle View.
Subscription and the Declaratory Act of 1892
All office-bearers in the Free Church of Scotland subscribe the Westminster Confession of Faith which states: “There is no other head of the Church, but the Lord Jesus Christ; nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.” (Chapter 25, section 6).
The Free Church Declaratory Act of 1892 was a device which allowed those who did not believe all the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith to continue as office-bearers in the old Free Church. It allowed office-bearers to subscribe only to “the substance of the Reformed Faith therein set forth”. This is a loose phrase, for “the substance” was not defined by the Assembly. This worked to the advantage of those who did not believe some of the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith. It meant that those office-bearers who subscribed the Westminster Confession of Faith in the light of the Declaratory Act could privately resile from doctrines in the Confession, without indicating which ones they did not believe, such as the six days of creation (Chapter 4, section 1), or that the pope is “that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church”. This was mental reservation.
Some people protested at this changing of the old Free Church’s doctrinal constitution, and when it became apparent at the General Assembly in 1893 that the Declaratory Act would not be repealed, and that it was here to stay, the Rev Donald Macfarlane protested against this and left the Assembly. This led to the formation of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland in 1893.
After the old Free Church joined the United Presbyterian Church in 1900, some conservatives who had remained in the Declaratory Act Free Church separated to form the present Free Church of Scotland. They now had a sufficient majority to rescind the Declaratory Act. However, as there was a court case pending, they did not rescind it until 1906. Having done so, the Free Church has promoted the impression that it has always held to unreserved subscription to the Confession, and still does. But does it? There have been suggestions in recent times that it does not hold to strict subscription, and the behaviour of some of its office-bearers suggests that this is so. The baneful influence of the Declaratory Act had done its work during the 14 years it was in operation in the Free Church, and now it can be plainly seen. There are ministers in the present Free Church, who declare plainly that they do not believe that the pope of Rome is “that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church”. Such office-bearers in the present Free Church, who do not hold to the whole teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith, are behaving as if there is a Declaratory Act in the Free Church of Scotland.
System of doctrine
On the other hand, what is the position of the conservatives in the Free Church? We know that there are some office-bearers in the Free Church of Scotland who truly subscribe to “the whole doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith”. They believe that this is the constitutional position of the Free Church of Scotland. However, it is not the position in practice. We believe that many office-bearers subscribe the Confession without mental reservation. However, when some of them write about subscription, they refer to “the system of doctrine” contained in the Westminster Confession.
Now such an expression is wholly inaccurate and inadequate, and it is more or less the same as the objectionable phrase in the Declaratory Act, “the substance of the Reformed Faith therein set forth”, because it is so nebulous. How is it inaccurate? The ordination vows of ministers in the Free Church aver that they “believe the whole doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith” (our emphasis), not merely “the system of doctrine”. And how is it inadequate? Subscription to “the system of doctrine” in the Confession is not the old Free Church form of subscription. The old Free Church had strict, unfeigned subscription, without mental reservation, and it was because of this that a Declaratory Act was brought in. So where do these recent writers obtain this idea of subscribing “the system of doctrine” contained in the Westminster Confession? They are probably imitating an American modification of the Scottish form of subscription.
American Presbyterian Subscription and the Confession of Faith
Ever since enacting the Adopting Act of 1729, the American Presbyterian Church has had a slack subscription to the Confession. Benjamin B. Warfield, the Professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology in the Theological Seminary of the Presbyterian Church at Princeton, New Jersey, comments: “The original Synod had in 1729 adopted the Westminster Confession and Catechisms under the terms of a Declaratory Act’.” Lefferts A. Loetscher comments: “The Adopting Act required all ministers to accept the Westminster Confession and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, not categorically, but declaring his agreement and approbation’ of these standards as being in all the essential and necessary articles, good forms of sound words and systems of Christian doctrine.’ Any minister who did not accept any particular part of the Confession or Catechisms might state his scruple concerning that part, and the ordaining body should then decide whether or not his scruple involved essential and necessary articles of faith’.” (The Broadening Church: a study of theological issues in the Presbyterian Church since 1869. Lefferts A. Loetscher, Philadelphia, 1957).
Therefore in some American Presbyterian churches it was possible for a probationer to state the doctrines in the Confession with which he did not agree, and if the Presbytery considered that these were not fundamental to the faith, he could be ordained. Thus American subscription has for centuries been different from Scottish subscription.
The Confession of Faith in America has also been different. The American Presbyterian churches began to modify the Confession from an early date, (for example, the teaching on the Establishment Principle was removed), so that it could no longer be called the “Westminster” Confession of Faith. However, this overt method of modifying the Confession was not used in Scotland until the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland modified it in 1986, (in a most surprising and questionable manner), so as to remove some references concerning the Roman mass and the Antichrist. Thus the Church of Scotland no longer subscribes to the “Westminster” Confession of Faith.
The Declaratory Act Era
In the latter part of the 19th century, there was a worldwide theological revision movement to modify the Confessions in all major Protestant churches. In the Presbyterian world this took the form of Declaratory Acts so that we may refer to this period as “The Declaratory Act Era”.
Although subscription to the Confession was lax in America, it was not lax in the Scottish Presbyterian Church. This meant that the revisionists in Scotland had to pass a Declaratory Act to allow those who did not believe all the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith to remain or become office-bearers in the Church. This was done first in 1879 by the United Presbyterian Church, and given prominence at the Second General Council of the Presbyterian Alliance, held in Philadelphia in September 1880. From there, this solution was exported worldwide and adopted by most major Presbyterian Churches worldwide at various intervals of time. The Free Church of Scotland followed suit in 1892.
In spite of its looser position, American Presbyterianism also experienced this revisionist pressure because it was led by theological revision and not merely by subscriptional scruples. B. B. Warfield attempted to hold back the infidel crowd with the argument that the American church was only subscribing “the system of doctrine” in the Confession of Faith, and that this should be sufficient to satisfy the revisionists’ demands. In the 1890s, at the very time that the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland successfully protested against theological revision in the Free Church, Warfield succeeded in holding back the first wave of revisionism. However, he succumbed to the second wave in the early 1900s. The decline of the Presbyterian Church in the USA followed, and this led to Gresham Machen’s split in the 1930s to form a separate Church and the Westminster Theological Seminary.
The Free Church of Scotland today
The appeal to the “system of doctrine” did not appease the revisionists in America in the last century, nor do we think that it will appease the Free Church revisionists in the late 20th century. This shows the inappropriateness of ministers in the Free Church of Scotland referring merely to “the system of doctrine” in their subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith. The fact that ministers in the present Free Church cannot be called to account for denying some of the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith shows that office-bearers can adopt an eclectic approach to the Confession, which is what the Declaratory Act was all about. The Rev James Gracie mentions “literal six day creation”. Was this not one of the matters which led to the Declaratory Act last century?
But what does the Free Church Defence Association intend to do about it? Producing an association is not enough. Does one need to produce an association to discipline people? It is difficult to know if discipline is on the agenda or not. In his letter in the English Churchman already referred to, the Rev Angus Smith writes about the FCDA: “It is well organised and now produces a magazine to meet the needs of those who desire to know what is really going on in the Free Church.” Many people already know “what is going on” what they need to know is what are they going to do about it? Does the FCDA exist just to beguile Free Church people into thinking that something is being done? Is it to be a mere talking shop rhetoric, but no action?
The answer seems to lie in the “Statement of Aims” of the FCDA, which include: “To press for consistency in adherence to ordination vows on the part of ministers, professors and office-bearers of the Free Church.” In other words, Professor Donald Macleod is only part of the problem, as they see it. There are too many office-bearers to discipline! Too many office-bearers have been adopting this pick-and-choose’ approach to the Westminster Confession of Faith the Declaratory Act is writ large in the Free Church.
Unwillingness to discipline
So discipline does not seem to be on the agenda. After a preliminary attempt at the first Commission of Assembly in October 1996 to investigate the writings of Professor Macleod for heresy, this has been reversed by the second Commission. Also, we read in the Stornoway Gazette last year that the Presbytery of Lewis called upon the Western Isles FCDA to disband in the interests of church unity, and the Presbytery proclaimed innocently that it had never framed any charges against the professor. Furthermore, even Iain H. Murray, who is no supporter of the professor and who is the author of a well-publicised post-trial pamphlet Professor Donald Macleod and his opponents’, stresses the point that: “No one has accused him [Macleod] of heresy.” (Murray’s emphasis, p.27, October 1986.)
Lovers of biblically Reformed Christianity will be glad that there is a will to do something, but what are they going to do? If it is not discipline, what is it? It seems that they want to move towards stricter subscription. Can this be accomplished? Has the pass not been sold? Are too many people not already compromised? And the question arises whether it will be too little and too late. At this late hour, the FCDA, in naming its magazine Free Church Foundations, is drawing attention to the foundations of the Free Church. But these foundations have fault lines in them. From the earliest attempts by the present Free Church to negotiate union with the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the latter warned it of the weakness in its constitution. Too long have good men in the Free Church dismissed the warnings of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland as mere cant and partisan posturing.
The Banner of Truth Magazine
The editorial in the November 1997 issue of The Banner of Truth magazine is entitled: “Can We Give our Creed our Credence”. The editor is the Rev Maurice Roberts, a Free Church minister in Inverness. Although the article makes no mention of the Free Church situation, there is a hint here of Mr Robert’s concerns. Mr Roberts is the Chairman of the FCDA.
The same issue of The Banner of Truth carries a news report about the current Free Church troubles, drawing attention to Free Church Foundations. In a neighbouring column The Banner of Truth reports on the breaking of fraternal relations between the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The writer of the report concludes: “The hopes and prayers of many are that the CRC will reconsider its liberalising policy of the last few years and return to its former obedience to the Word of God. Churches can recover in that way and in recent years in the USA this has, by God’s grace, happened in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Presbyterian Churches in other countries could profit from a study of those experiences.”
The writer evidently hopes that this ability to recover will be true of the Free Church of Scotland. However, Presbyterian history does not support his optimism. We suspect that the battle is joined too late. The defence should have been mounted in the courts of the church long ago. The conservatives may have already paid too dear a price for denominational peace in earlier decades. Why did the conservatives not take on these doctrinal aberrations long ago when they began to appear? Is it because too many of them were already affected by Declaratory Act thinking? Is this why they did not stir themselves to discipline people who did not believe that the pope was the man of sin, as their Confession stated? This capitulation was the thin end of the wedge of Declaratory Act thinking. Mr Gracie’s long list suggests that things have gone too far and for too long. But if this is so, is there then a real desire to recover strict subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and can it be achieved? At this stage, we need to remind the strict subscriptionists in the Free Church that there already exists a Presbyterian Church in Scotland whose office-bearers adhere to “the whole doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith”.
Revisiting old arguments with modern relevance
Did the Declaratory Act of 1892 change the constitution of the old Free Church or did it not? The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland says that it did, while the present Free Church of Scotland says that it did not. The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland was formed in protest against this change, but those Constitutionalists who eventually formed the present Free Church in 1900 stayed in the old Free Church.
After the House of Lords case in 1904, the Free Church rescinded the Declaratory Act in 1906. The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland has taken the view that she did not do this in the 1900-5 period because it might prejudice her case before the House of Lords.
But will a future General Assembly of the Free Church re-enact that which it rescinded? We have already shown that some ministers in the Free Church are acting as if they have a Declaratory Act in their church’s legislation. Now, suppose that a majority in the Free Church were to re-enact the Declaratory Act. Is this unconstitutional? Would any Free Church office-bearer protest and leave? No – because that is what the Free Presbyterians did in 1893, and Free Churchmen today cannot yet bring themselves to admit publicly that this was the appropriate action. The official Free Church position is to defend the Constitutionalists who stayed in the old Free Church after 1893, while at the same time repudiating the Declaratory Act. This creates the anomaly that the conservatives are now obliged to remain in the present Free Church of Scotland even if it passed another Declaratory Act. This possibly explains why so many of them have already tolerated the behaviour of those who are acting as if they have such legislation already. The horns of this dilemma have always been there, but now they are making themselves painfully felt.
This suggests that the revisionists in the Free Church can push for another Declaratory Act. The only error they must avoid is joining with another Church too soon afterwards and changing their constitution, as this will give scope to the conservatives to challenge them legally on what they deem to be a better footing, that of the constitutional change involved in uniting with another church.
A lesson from history
The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland has long contended that if there had been no Union in 1900 between the Free Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterian Church, then the Free Church would have remained under the Declaratory Act and declined theologically under its baneful effects. This Act would have allowed ministers into office who did not believe the whole doctrine of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
We can now see the truth of this assessment when we behold what has happened in the present Free Church when some of its ministers act as if they have a Declaratory Act.
What is to prevent a majority of the General Assembly of the Free Church passing another Declaratory Act? We do not know if there is anything to prevent them. In the old Free Church, the Declaratory Act was necessary to relieve the scruples of conscience which many office-bearers had in signing the Westminster Confession of Faith which they did not believe fully. There seem to be no such scruples of conscience among those Free Church ministers who do not believe the whole doctrine of the Confession they have signed, as they have not sought a Declaratory Act to relieve their conscience. The difficulty with this is simply that it is not honest. This is mental reservation, not the open declaration of dissent as in the American subscription mentioned above.
But are the revisionists alone in their mental reservation? How many conservative office-bearers privately hold views at variance with the Confession? And when a revisionist theologian and revisionist ministers state openly their belief that the pope is not the man of sin, is this not more honest than those who privately hold the same views? American Presbyterians stated openly their disagreement with doctrines in the Confession. Which is more honest?
The instability of the Free Church constitutional position is becoming more obvious as positions polarise. Let this state of affairs continue, and if the rising generation follows the growing readiness to openly disagree with the Confession, new ministers will express their scruples of conscience and demand that the Church’s Confession be brought into line with what people actually believe. Deja vu! This is what happened last century.
Perhaps the policy of the revisionists is: Why go through the contentious procedure of enacting controversial legislation, so long as we can live as if we have the legislation already? But as it is already proving contentious not to have enacted such legislation, what is there to lose in pushing for it now? And can the revisionists afford to wait? Some of the conservative ministers in the present Free Church respond by saying that the revisionist ministers have taken ordination vows insincerely, and ought to leave the Church. We are revisiting the late 19th century battlegrounds.
Should the Free Church prepare for an onslaught upon its Confessional standards? Who can tell? It depends upon the political planning of the revisionists whether they feel that the time is ripe or not. It is time that conservative Free Churchmen admitted that the constitution upon which they wish to build the Church of Christ is to be found in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
“Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein. Also I set watchmen over you, saying, Hearken to the sound of the trumpet. But they said, We will not hearken.” (Jeremiah 6:16-17).
“And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.” (Isaiah 58:12).
References for further reading:
- For the text of the Free Church of Scotland Declaratory Act of 1892 and a critique of the Act, see History of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland 1893-1970, Alexander McPherson, Inverness, 1974, pp.59-61, 385-427.
- Auld Castle View, Inverness, May 1996, July 1997, August 1997.
- Free Church Foundations, Oct 1997.
- The Broadening Church: a study of theological issues in the Presbyterian Church since 1869. Lefferts A. Loetscher, Philadelphia, 1957.