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Irish Synod. The champion of the latter, Samuel Delap, in his " Remarks on some Articles of the Seceders,” (1749,) discussed largely the question of the terms of ministerial and Christian communion.' He says:
" I see no inconsistency between a Christian's endeavoring, in a Christian manner, and by snitable means, to pluck up every Plant that God has not planted, and using charitable Forbearance toward fellow-Protestants, agreed in the most important Articles of Christianity, and by Profession united in Christ the Head ; though he believes they are weak in the Faith; and that there is a mixture of Wood, Hay and Stubble in the Spiritual Building, with the Gold, Silver and precious Stones: As zeal for Truth is commendable, so God has commanded moderation and charitable Forbearance among the Disciples of Jesus Christ.
He contends " that the narrow terms of ministerial and Christian communion, specified in the Seceders' new Covenant, and ratified by their Act of presbytery, are not the terms of communion revealed in God's word ; and that such matters of doubtful disputation among learned and pious men, ought not to be made terms of ministerial and Christian communion in the church.” - The New Testament,” he says, “ gives no ground to make matters of doubtful disputation among the true disciples of Christ, articles of a solemn covenant with God, and terms of communion in the church. Our blessed Saviour did not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax. ... The disciples of Christ were subject to many errors and infirmities while he was with them. They were under doubts ... under a mistake, etc. In the first
In the first ages of Christianity, the church was far from inserting into their creed matters of doubtful disputation.”
“The Creed generally received in the primitive churches is but a short enlargement and exposition on the Form of Bap
a tism; and the substance of it is contained in that which is commonly called the Apostles' Creed. ... Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, Augustine, Chrysostom, Jerome, Cyprian, and other Fathers of the Church, were chargeable with some errors ; if every one of their errors could justly be made an exclusive term of communion, none of them could have had communion with one another.”
The bearing of these principles on the subject of subscription to the standards is obvious. They were accepted and en
dorsed by the New Castle Presbytery, who refer to them with express approval, and who, five years later, (1754,) issued their “warning" against the errors and practices of John Cuthbertson. They were ready to "acknowledge his separa
. tion guiltless, if he was obliged to withdraw on account of the imposition of sinful or unscriptural terms of communion." That the matter might be set in a proper light, they observe “that all religious truths and duties are not equally important. . . . Some ... are but circumstantial and some fundamental. It is the duty of the strong to bear the infirmities of the weak,... but if there ought to be forbearance, then it will follow that some religious truths and duties ought not to be terms of communion in the church. The pretense of keeping the church pure is plausible at first sight, and seems mighty friendly to strict holiness, but they involve themselves by the above principle in an unhappy contradiction; for if they are for holding fast every truth and duty, let them hold these among the rest, viz., that every truth and duty is not equally great, and may not be made equal termsof communion; that brotherly love and the communion of saints are more excellent than many other duties in religion ; that we ought to bear with some mistakes and weaknesses in our brethren, and not unchurch them for some different sentiments and practices. Now if such great things as these are cast out of religion for the sake of purity, what kind of purity is it? It is a kind of strictness beyond what our Lord and his apostles taught, therefore let it be Anathema."
It is thus that they insisted that all truths were “not truths of such importance as to be made terms." Assuming the correctness of Delap's position, that matters of doubtful disputation ought not to be made terms of communion, they remark:
“That may be called a matter of doubtful Disputation, or, (which is the same thing,) a disputable Point, concerning which clear and certain Evidence can not ordinarily be obtained ; and concerning which, the Holy and Learned dispute, who are agreed in the great Fundamentals of Religion, relating both to Doctrine and Worship, Discipline and Government. It is certain the Apostle forbids the receiving of Christians to doubtful Disputations, Rom. xiv, 1, which is, in other words, to forbid making such matters Terms of Communion!"
They add, moreover : " To make doubtful Disput: ons Terms of Communion, and that by Solemn Corenant Oath, especially when our information of the Truth of Matters of Fact depends upon fallible History, is, instead of being a moral Duty, a very great evil. The Articles of our Faith, and Forms of Communion, should be founded upon and taken from Scripture, that the Conscience may be convinced of all from Divine Testimony."
Such were the views published by the New Castle Presbytery, in their own name, when met by charges of laxness in regard to terms of ministerial and Christian communion. They set forth their own principles lucidly, and defended them manfully. They insisted on a distinction in favor of fundamental truths. They urged Christian forbearance between ministerial brethren. They maintained that none but plain scriptural terms of communion should be imposed, and they pronounced Anathema on “a kind of strictness beyond what our Lord and his Apostles taught.”
And yet with such facts on record, establishing beyond all question or doubt the “liberal Presbyterianism” of the New Castle Presbytery, and going as far as any party in the church can have any plausible pretense for going, the Rev. Dr. Baird asserts, that “the liberal principles of Dr. Gillett find no shadow of countenance in the Adopting Act of 1729, nor the reunion of 1758, nor anywhere else in the history of our fathers."
When the synod of New York and Philadelphia prepared and published" The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church” (1789), they incorporated into its Introduction the memorable declaration, that they “ believe that there are truths and forms, with respect to which men of good character and principles may differ : And in all these they think it the duty, both of private Christians and societies, to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.” It would be easy to showfrom the recorded diversities of opinion among the ministers of that day, some like Wilson and Patillo urging a large latitude on certain points—that these opinions are in keeping with the tolerant spirit subsequently evinced in repeated instances in the history of the church.
We do not care, however, to rake up anew the evidence ad
duced by those whose Reformed Presbyterianism is assumed by them to be a protest against the laxity of the Presbyterian church in every stage of its history subsequent to the Adopting Act. We leave to them the liberty of making what they can of the obnoxious doctrines of McCorkle and Patillo, never condemned or discountenanced by the judicatories of the church. They may dwell if they choose on the laxity of the Pittsburg Synod, in quietly approving Porter's sermon, dilating upon the vanity or tyranny of creeds and confessions. The cases they cite in vindication of their separation from a body so lax as they represent our church to be, may find some apology in their provincial obscurity. But we must say, that whatever divergence they may exhibit from the right line of the standards, they are not without a precedent in high quarters. Creditable or discreditable as it may be accounted to the honor of the church, it is stated by Dr. Priestley, that when he landed in this country at the close of the last century, the only pulpit in which he was invited to preach was that of Princeton. The only theological professor within our bounds whom we can recall as rejecting the Calvinistic doctrine of imputation, and caricaturing it as being sentenced" to an eternity of misery because of the transgressions of one who sinned before I was born,” was one of the successors of Dr. Witherspoon, as a teacher of theology at Princeton. Dr. Samuel Stanhope Smith made it the merit of one of his latest volumes, that only a moderate Calvinism, not unacceptable to an Episcopal Bishop, was to be found in it; and he did not succeed in suppressing his chagrin that Dr. Ashbel Green counted his textbook unsound in the “doctrines of grace.” Our church has afforded shelter too long and too extensively to varied interpretations of the doctrines of our standards, to allow us to set its history over against a liberal interpretation of the Adopting Act, and the attempt to do so can result only in its own defeat. We have been as a church, for the most part, consistent in tolerating diversities of belief, substantially sound and Scriptural, however varied among themselves. The Adopting Act, as we claim to understand it, has been no false symbol of our subsequent history. The plea for strict terms of
subscription comes with an ill grace from a quarter where they have been practically set at naught. There are indeed many incidents in our history which, with every candid mind, must set the question at rest; and as we consider them successively, they meet us with cumulative and overwhelming evidence.
Among the Scottish clergy of his day, Robert Wodrow was perhaps as strict as any in his views of subscription to the standards. When the Pacific Act of 1720 was passed by the Irish Synod, requiring licentiates to subscribe the Westminster Confession, yet allowing any person scrupling any phrase or phrases in the Confession liberty to use his own expressions, which the Presbytery should accept of if they judged the person sound in the faith, Wodrow remarked that it “has given a larger door there than we allow in this church, at least by any direct act of the Assembly.” He adds, it “is as large a concession as, I think, could well be made to intrants.” But a the action of the American Synod evidently, in his judgment, went beyond this. He attributed it to Irish ministers, carrying the heats that had consumed them at home across the Atlantic. He admitted that it was a mere guess, and that he should be glad to find it otherwise. But he remarks, “we have here a copy of their Act about subscription, which know not well what to make of.” And yet Dr. Baird reads this same Act through the spectacles of his Digest, and says, "the liberal principles of Dr. Gillett find no shadow of countenance in the Adopting Act of 1729.”
No one, at this day, will question the orthodox Old Schoolism of Dr. Ashbel Green. Nothing would have been more gratifying to him than to be able to say of the Adopting Act that its strictness was inconsistent with all “New School” laxness of doctrine. But his judgment of it, expressed with characteristic emphasis, was, that "it gave and took, bound and loosed, in the same breath." Dr. Baird, however, concludes his examination of it by declaring—and that too after evidently attempting to show that it was designed by "implication” that: no man should scruple "one word to anything in the doctrinal statements”—that "the liberal principles of Dr. Gillett find no shadow of countenance in the Adopting Act of 1729.”