aA
aA
aA
aA
aA
aA
Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical notes. Volume I. The History of Creeds.
« Prev Criticism of the Westminster System of Doctrine. Next »

§ 97. Criticism of the Westminster System of Doctrine.

The Westminster Confession, together with the Catechisms, is the fullest and ripest symbolical statement of the Calvinistic system of doctrine. In theological ability and merit it is equal to the best works of the kind, and is not surpassed by the Lutheran Formula of Concord or the Roman Decrees of the Councils of Trent and the Vatican. Its intrinsic worth alone can explain the fact that it has supplanted the older Scottish standards of John Knox and John Craig in the land of their birth, and that it was adopted by three distinct denominations: by the Presbyterians in full, and by the Congregationalists and the Regular Baptists with some slight modifications. Of these the Congregationalists had but a small though very able representation in the Westminster Assembly, the Baptists none at all. It has at this day as much vitality as any of the Protestant symbols and more vitality than most of them. It materially aids in shaping theological thought and religious activity as far as the English tongue prevails. Altogether it represents the most vigorous and yet moderate form of Calvinism, which has found (like Christianity itself) a more congenial and permanent home in the Anglo-Saxon race than in the land of its birth.

The doctrines of the Confession are stated with unusual care, logical precision, clearness, caution, and circumspection, and with an eye to all their various aspects and mutual relations. Where they seem to conflict or can not be harmonized by our finite intelligence—as absolute sovereignty and free agency, the fall of Adam and personal guilt, the infinite divinity and the finite humanity of Christ—both truths are set forth, and room is left for explanations and adjustments by scientific theology within the general limits of the system. The important difference between a public confession of faith and a private system of theology was at least distinctly recognized in principle, although (as we shall see presently) not always consistently carried out.15161516   In the debate on predestination Dr. Reynolds wisely said, 'Let us not put disputes and scholastic things into a confession of faith.'—Minutes, p. 151.

The style of the Confession and Catechisms is clear, strong, dignified, and well adapted to the grave subject. The selection of Scripture proofs is careful and judicious, and reveals a close familiarity with the sacred writings.

The merits of the Westminster standards have been admitted not only by Presbyterians,15171517   Principal Baillie wrote (Jan. 26, 1647, Letters, Vol. III. p. 2): 'The Confession is much cried up by all, even many of our greatest opposites, as the best confession yet extant.' The moderate and judicious Richard Baxter esteemed the Westminster Confession and Catechisms the best books in his library next to the Bible, and says (in his Confession, ch. i. § 5): 'I have perused oft the Confession of the Assembly, and verily judge it the most excellent, for fullness and exactness, that I have ever read from any Church; and though the truths therein, being of several degrees of evidence and necessity, I do not hold them with equal clearness, confidence, or certainty; and though some few points in it are beyond my reach, yet I have observed nothing in it contrary to my judgment, if I may be allowed those expositions following.' The saintly Archbishop Leighton, though he left the Church for which his father had suffered such cruelties from Laud, taught the doctrine of the Confession to the end of his life. but also by liberal Episcopalians,15181518   J. B. Marsden (The History of the Later Puritans, 1852, pp. 80, 81), while judging severely of the Assembly on account of its treatment of Episcopacy, thinks the Westminster Confession inferior to none of the Protestant Confessions except in originality, and adds: 'It does not, however, detract from the real merit of these later divines, that they availed themselves of the labors of the Reformation; or that Bullinger and Calvin, especially the latter, should have left them little to accomplish, except in the way of arrangement and compression. The Westminster Confession should be read by those who can not encounter the more ponderous volumes of the great masters from which it is derived. It is in many respects an admirable summary of Christian faith and practice. None can lay it down with a mean opinion of the Westminster divines. The style is pure and good, the proofs are selected with admirable skill, the arguments are always clear, the subjects well distributed, and sufficiently comprehensive to form at least the outline of a perfect system of divinity.' It is but just to add that Marsden goes on to censure what he calls its 'rigid ultra-Calvinism, which has always repelled the great majority of English Christians.' Dean Stanley, who has no theological sympathy with the Westminster Confession, says that of all Protestant Confessions 'it far more nearly approaches the full proportions of a theological treatise, and exhibits far more depth of theological insight, than any other,' He adds, however, that 'it reflects also far more than any other the minute hair-splitting and straw-dividing distinctions which had reached their height in the Puritanical theology of that age, and which in sermons ran into the sixteenthly, seventeenthly sections that so exercised the soul of Dugald Dalgetty as he waited for the conclusion of the discourse in the chapel of Inverary Castle. It accordingly furnished the food for which the somewhat hard and logical intellect of Scotland had a special appetite' (Lectures on the History of the Church of Scotland, delivered in 1872, Am. ed. p. 88). In another place Stanley calls the Westminster formulary 'that famous Confession of Faith which, alone within these islands, was imposed by law on the whole kingdom; and which, alone of all Protestant Confessions, still, in spite of its sternness and narrowness, retains a hold on the minds of its adherents, to which its fervor and its logical coherence in some measure entitle it' (Memorials of Westminster Abbey, p. 513). and even by Methodists, who entirely dissent from its theology.15191519   Dr. Currey, for many years editor of the 'Methodist Advocate,' of New York, in an editorial on Creeds (Aug. 6, 1874), calls 'the Westminster Confession of Faith the ablest, clearest, and most comprehensive system of Christian doctrine ever framed. That venerable instrument purposely embodies in its unity the dogma of absolute predestination, which necessarily becomes the corner-stone of the edifice, so giving it shape and character. But, despite that capital fault, it is not only a wonderful monument of the intellectual greatness of its framers, but a comprehensive embodiment of nearly all the precious truths of the gospel. If set forth without ecclesiastical authority, for the edification of believers, it would, despite its faults, be a work of inestimable worth; but enforced by such authority, and imposed upon men's consciences, it is a yoke and a chain and a cage of iron. And yet this is the accepted formula of faith of nearly all the Calvinistic Churches of America. Even the Congregationalists in National Council, at Plymouth Rock, only a few years ago, reaffirmed their acceptance of it.'

DEFECTS.

The Westminster standards, like all human productions, including the translations of the Bible itself, have imperfections.

The great revival of the sixteenth century was followed in the Reformed and Lutheran Churches by a dry scholasticism which was more biblical and evangelical than the mediæval scholasticism, but shared with it the defects of a one-sided intellectualism to the exclusion of the mystic and emotional types of Christianity. Scholasticism in the technical sense—whether Roman Catholic or Protestant—is the product of the devout understanding rather than the glowing heart, and approaches the deepest mysteries of faith, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the eternal decrees of election and reprobation of men and angels, with profound reverence indeed, yet with a boldness and assurance as if they were mathematical problems or subjects of anatomical dissection.15201520   Dr. Wallis, the mathematician, who is said to be the chief author of the sharp definitions of the Shorter Catechism (see p. 786), wrote towards the close of the seventeenth century a pamphlet in defense of the doctrine of the Trinity against rising Unitarianism, where he compares the Almighty to a cube with its length, breadth, and height infinitely extended, longum, latum, profundum, which are the equal sides of one substance, and fairly resemble the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He finds nothing mysterious in this doctrine. 'It is,' he says, 'but this, that there be three somewhats, which are but one God, and these somewhats are called Persons.' Quoted by Stoughton, The Church of the Revolution, p. 213. It shows usually a marvelous dexterity in analysis, division, subdivision, distinction, and definition, but it lacks the intuition into the hidden depths and transcending heights where the antagonisms of partial truths meet in unity.

The Westminster standards do not go so far in this direction as the Canons of Dort or the Helvetic Consensus Formula, but certainly further than the Reformation symbols, which are less logical and precise, and more fresh and elastic. They reflect the hard severity of Puritanism. They embody too much metaphysical divinity, and overstep the limits which divide a public confession of faith from a scientific treatise of theology. It would be impossible nowadays to pass such an elaborate system through any Protestant ecclesiastical body with a view to impose it upon all teachers of religion. The Confession, however, as already mentioned, was not intended as a yoke by the English framers, nor has subscription ever been required to all its details, but only to the general scheme. The Bible is expressly declared by Calvinists to be 'the only infallible rule of faith and practice,' and the Confession is adopted 'as containing the system of doctrine taught in the holy Scriptures.'15211521   This is the American formula of subscription required from ministers. On the Scottish subscription formulas, see Innes, pp. 66, 81, 84, 103, 453.

The chief characteristics of Calvinistic scholasticism as it prevailed in the seventeenth century are that it starts from God's sovereignty and justice rather than from God's love and mercy, and that it makes the predestinarian scheme to control the historical and christological scheme. This brings us to the most assailable point in the Westminster Confession and Larger Catechism, the abstract doctrine of eternal decrees, which will always repel a large portion of evangelical Christendom. We believe that the divine-human person and work of Christ furnish the true key to the full understanding of the plan of salvation and the solid platform for the ultimate agreement of all evangelical creeds.

PRETERITION OF THE REST OF MANKIND.

Absolute predestinarianism is the strength and the weakness of Calvinism. The positive decree of eternal election is its impregnable fort, the negative decree of eternal reprobation its Achilles' heel. Predestination to holiness and happiness, being a gracious purpose of God's love, is full of 'sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons,'15221522   Articles of the Church of England, Art. XVII. and affords 'matter of praise, reverence, and admiration of God, and of humility, diligence, and abundant consolation to all that sincerely obey the gospel.'15231523   Westm. Conf. Ch. VIII. § 8. This last section is the best in the whole chapter. Predestination to death and damnation, being a judicial decree of God's wrath on account of Adam's fall, is—whether true or false—a 'decretum horribile' (as Calvin himself significantly calls it, in view of the apparent ruin of whole nations with their offspring), and ought never to be put into a creed or confession of the Church, but should be left to the theology of the school. Hence it is wisely omitted by the Heidelberg Catechism, the Helvetic Confessions, the Thirty-nine Articles, and other Reformed symbols. Even the old Scotch Confession of John Knox does not mention it, and the Second Scotch Confession expressly rejects, as an antichristian error, the horrible popish doctrine of the damnation of unbaptized infants.

The Westminster Confession, it is true, carefully avoids the term reprobation, and substitutes for it the milder idea of preterition. It uses the verb predestinate only with reference to eternal life, while the lost are spoken of as being ordained or judicially condemned to death. Yet it makes the dogmatic assertion that 'God was pleased, according to the unsearchable counsel of his own will, whereby he extendeth or withholdeth mercy as he pleaseth, for the glory of his sovereign power over his creatures, to pass by the rest of mankind, and to ordain them to dishonor and wrath for their sin, to the praise of his glorious justice.'15241524   Ch. III. 7. This seventh section is the one dark spot in the Confession, and mars its beauty and usefulness. Comp. Larger Catechism, Quest. 13: 'God hath passed by and foreordained the rest to dishonor and wrath to be for their own sin inflicted, to the praise of the glory of his justice.' The Shorter Catechism (Quest. 7) wisely omits the negative part of predestination. Now there are indeed passages in the Old and New Testaments, especially the ninth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, which seem to bear out this statement,15251525    Matt. xi. 25 ('Thou hast hid these things,' etc.); Rom. ix. 17, 18, 21, 22; 2 Tim. ii. 20; Jude 4; 1 Pet. ii. 8—all quoted in the Confession. The ninth chapter of Romans is the exegetical bulwark of the doctrine of reprobation; but it must be explained in connection with the tenth chapter, which brings out the unbelief of the creature as the cause, and with the eleventh chapter, which opens the prospect of a glorious solution of the problem in the conversion of the fullness of the Gentiles and the people of Israel, and ends with the grand declaration that 'God hath shut up all unto disobedience, that he might have mercy upon all.' We have no more right to limit the all in the second clause than in the first. Comp. the parallelism in Rom. v. 12 sqq. but they must be interpreted in the light of the biblical idea of a God of infinite love and mercy, and in connection with other passages which in their obvious and natural sense declare that God sincerely desires all men to repent and be saved, that Christ is the Saviour of the world, that he is the propitiation not only for our sins, 'but also for the sins of the whole world,' and that he condemns no one absolutely and finally except for unbelief—that is, for the willful rejection of the gospel salvation.15261526    John i. 29; iii. 16; iv. 24; 1 John ii. 2; iii. 8, 16; iv. 14; 1 Tim. ii. 4; Titus ii. 11; 2 Pet. iii. 9; Mark xvi. 16. This fundamental doctrine of God's universal love and abundant provision for the salvation of all mankind should be put into a confession of faith rather than the doctrine of reprobation or preterition, which is, to say the least, as objectionable in such a document as the damning clauses in the Athanasian Creed.

The exegetical and theological adjustment of this whole subject of predestination, and of the unequal distribution and partial withholding of the favors of Providence and the means of grace in this world, is involved in insurmountable difficulties, and the contemplation of it should, make us cautious and charitable. A few general remarks may tend to set the problem in its true light, and to open the prospect of at least a partial solution.15271527   Comp. our remarks, pp. 451 sqq.

It must in fairness be admitted that the Calvinistic system only traces undeniable facts to their first ante-mundane cause in the inscrutable counsel of God. It draws the legitimate logical conclusions from such anthropological and eschatological premises as are acknowledged by all other orthodox Churches, Greek, Roman, Lutheran, and Reformed. They all teach the condemnation of the human race in consequence of Adam's fall, and confine the opportunity and possibility of salvation from sin and perdition to this present life,15281528   The Roman Catholic doctrine, of purgatory is no exception, for this is confined to members of the Catholic Church who were converted in this life but need further purification before they can enter heaven. The Roman creed is more pronounced than the Greek and the Protestant on the impossibility of salvation outside of the visible Church on earth. And yet every body must admit that the vast majority of mankind, no worse by nature than the rest, and without personal guilt, are born and grow up in heathen darkness, out of the reach of the means of grace, and are thus, as far as we know, actually 'passed by' in this world. No orthodox system can logically reconcile this stubborn and awful fact with the universal love and impartial justice of God.

The only solution seems to lie either in the Quaker doctrine of universal light—that is, an uncovenanted offer of salvation to all men in this earthly life—or in an extension of the period of saving grace beyond death till the final judgment for those (and for those only) who never had an opportunity in this world to accept or to reject the gospel salvation. But the former view implies a depreciation of the visible Church, the ministry of the gospel, and the sacraments; the latter would require a liberal reconstruction of the traditional doctrine of the middle state such as no orthodox Church, in the absence of clear Scripture light on this mysterious subject, and in view of probable abuse, would be willing to admit in its confessional teaching, even if theological exegesis should be able to produce a better agreement than now exists on certain disputed passages of the New Testament and the doctrine of Hades.

So far, then, the only difference is that, while the other orthodox Confessions conceal the real difficulty, Calvinism reveals it, and thus brings it nearer to a solution.

Moreover, the Calvinistic system, by detaching election from the absolute necessity of water-baptism, has a positive advantage over the Augustinian system, and is really more liberal. All the creeds which teach baptismal regeneration as an indispensable prerequisite of salvation virtually exclude the overwhelming majority of mankind—whole nations, with untold millions of infants dying in infancy—from the kingdom of heaven, whether they expressly say so or not. The Christian heart of the great African father shrunk from this fearful but inevitable conclusion of his logical head, and tried to mitigate it by making a distinction between positive damnation or actual suffering, and negative damnation or absence of bliss, and by subjecting unbaptized infants to the latter only. And this is the doctrine of Roman Catholic divines. The Calvinistic theory affords a more substantial relief, and allows, after the precedent of Zwingli and Bullinger, and in accordance with the analogy of Melchisedek, Job, and other exceptional cases of true piety under the Jewish dispensation, an indefinite extension of God's saving grace beyond the limits of the visible Church and the ordinary means of grace. It leaves room for the charitable hope of the salvation of all infants dying in infancy, and of those adults who, without an historical knowledge of Christ, live up to the light of nature and Providence, and die with a humble and penitent longing after salvation—that is, in a frame of mind like that of Cornelius when he sent for St. Peter.15291529   See above, p. 378. This was, indeed, not the professed Calvinism of Calvin and Beza, nor of the divines of Dort and Westminster, nor of the older divines of New England;15301530   The Rev. Michael Wigglesworth, of Malden, Mass., a graduate and tutor of Harvard College (d. 1705), published a popular poem, The Day of Doom (1662; 6th ed. 1715; reprinted as a curiosity by the Amer. News Company, New York, 1867), in which God reasons on the judgment-day with reprobate infants, who 'from the womb unto the tomb were straightway carried,' about the justice of their eternal damnation; and in consideration of their lesser guilt, assigns them (like St. Augustine) 'the easiest room in hell!' but it is consistent with the Calvinistic scheme, which never presumed to fix the limits of divine election, and with a liberal interpretation of the Westminster Confession, which expressly acknowledges that elect infants and elect adults are regenerated and saved by Christ without being outwardly called by the gospel.15311531   Ch. X. 3: 'Elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who worketh when and where and how he pleaseth. So are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.' The Confession nowhere speaks of reprobate infants, and the existence of such is not necessarily implied by way of distinction, although it probably was in the minds of the framers as their private opinion, which they wisely withheld from the Confession. I think the interpretation of Dr. A. A. Hodge, of Allegheny, in his Commentary on this section (p. 240), is fairly admissible: 'The Confession affirms what is certainly revealed, and leaves that which revelation has not decided to remain without the suggestion of a positive opinion upon one side or the other.'. He agrees, as to the salvation of all infants dying in infancy, with his father, who asserts that 'he never saw a Calvinistic theologian who held the doctrine of infant damnation in any sense' (System. Theol., Vol. III. p. 605).

Modern Calvinism, at least in America, has decidedly taken a liberal view of this subject, and freely admits at least the probability of the universal salvation of infants, and hence the salvation of the greater part of the human race. Christianity can not be a failure in any sense—it must be a triumphant success, which is guaranteed from eternity by the infinite goodness and wisdom of God.15321532   Dr. Hodge, of Princeton, is of the opinion, which would be preposterous in the Augustinian and Roman Catholic system, that the number of those who are ultimately lost is 'very inconsiderable as compared with the whole number of the saved.' This is the closing sentence of his System. Theol., Vol. III. p. 879. That the number of the saved will far exceed the number of the lost may be fairly inferred from the πολλῷ μᾶλλον of Paul (Rom. v. 15, 17); but this inference can not well be harmonized with the declaration of our Lord, Matt. vii. 14, that but few enter the strait gate, unless we assume the universal salvation of infants, and look forward to great progress of the gospel in the future.

But whatever may be the theoretical solution of this deep and dark mystery, there is a practical platform on which evangelical Christians can agree, namely, that all men who are and will be saved are saved by the free grace of God, without any merit of their own (faith itself being a gift of grace); while all who are lost are lost by their own guilt. It has often been said that pious Calvinists preach like Arminians, and pious Arminians pray like Calvinists. In this both may be inconsistent, but it is a happy and a useful inconsistency. The Calvinistic Whitefield was as zealous and successful in converting souls as the Arminian Wesley, and Wesley was as fervent and prevailing in prayer as Whitefield. They parted in this world, but they have long since been reconciled in heaven, where they see the whole truth face to face. We must work as if all depended on our efforts, and we must pray as if all depended on God. This is the holy paradox of St. Paul, who exhorts the Philippians to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, for the very reason that it is God who worketh effectively in them both to will and to work of his own good pleasure. God's work in us and for us is the basis and encouragement of our work in him and for him.

INTOLERANCE.15331533    On the subject of Toleration and Persecution, with special reference to England, the reader may profitably consult a series of Tracts on Liberty of Conscience and Persecution, 1614–1661, edited by Edward B. Underhill for the Hansard Knollys Society, London, 1846; W. E. H. Lecky, History of Rationalism in Europe. (4th edition, London, 1870; New York edition, 1875, in 2 vols.), ch. iv.; Masson, Life of Milton, Vol. III. pp. 87 sqq., 383 sqq.; Stoughton, The Church of the Revolution (London, 1874), ch. iv. pp. 114 sqq.; and Marshall's book quoted on p. 754.

The principle of intolerance has been charged upon Chaps. XXIII. (Of the Civil Magistrate), XXX. (Of Church Censures), XXXI. (Of Synods and Councils), and the last clause of Ch. XX. (Of Christian Liberty, viz., the words 'and by the power of the civil magistrate'). The same charge applies to a few words in the 109th question of the Larger Catechism, where 'tolerating a false religion' is included among the sins forbidden in the Second Commandment with reference to some passages of the Old Testament and of the Book of Revelation (ii. 2, 16, 20; xvii. 16, 17).

There is no doubt that these passages assume a professedly Christian government, or the union of Church and State as it had come to be established in all Christian countries since the days of Constantine, and as it was acknowledged at that time by Protestants as well as Roman Catholics.15341534   The first dissenting voices came from Anabaptists and Socinians, and from Castellio, who had nothing to gain and every thing to lose from the existing alliance of government and religion. It is on this ground that the Confession claims for the civil magistrate (of whatever form of government) the right and duty not only legally to protect, but also to support the Christian Church, and to prohibit or punish heresy, idolatry, and blasphemy.

The power to coerce and punish implies the principle of intolerance and the right of persecution in some form or other, though this right may never be exercised. For just as far as a civil government is identified with a particular Church, an offense against that Church becomes an offense against the State, and subject to its penal code. All acts of uniformity in religion are necessarily exclusive, and must prohibit the public manifestations of dissent, whatever may be the private thoughts and sentiments, which no human government can reach.

It is a fact, moreover, that the Westminster Assembly was called for the purpose of legislating for the faith, government, and worship of three kingdoms, and that by adopting the Solemn League and Covenant it was pledged for the extirpation of popery and prelacy and all heresy.15351535   And yet, in the face of this fact and the whole history of the seventeenth century, Dr. Hetherington (in his Introduction to Shaw's Exposition of the Confession of Faith, pp. xxviii.) broadly denies any taint of intolerance in the Confession.

The few Independents demanded a limited toleration, and were backed by Cromwell and his army, which was full of Independents, Baptists, Antinomians, Socinians, New Lights, Familists, Millenarians, and other 'proud, self-conceited, hot-headed sectaries' (as Baxter calls them). All these sectaries, who sprung up during the great religious excitement of the age, but mostly subsided soon afterwards, were of course tolerationists in their own interest. But for this very reason the prevailing sentiment in the Assembly was stoutly opposed to toleration, as the great Diana of the Independents and supposed mother and nurse of all sorts of heresies and blasphemies threatening the overthrow of religion and society.15361536   Thomas Edwards, a zealous Presbyterian minister at London, published in 1645 a treatise of 60 pages, dedicated to Parliament, under the title, Gangræna; or, a Catalogue and Discovery of many of the Errors, Heresies, Blasphemies, and Pernicious Practices of the Sectaries of this Time, in which he collects no less than one hundred and seventy-six miscellaneous 'errors, heresies, and blasphemies,' and enumerates sixteen heretical sects—namely: 1, Independents; 2, Brownists; 3, Millenaries; 4, Antinomians; 5, Anabaptists; 6, Arminians; 7, Libertines; 8, Familists; 9, Enthusiasts; 10, Seekers: 11, Perfectists: 12, Socinians; 13, Arians; 14, Antitrinitarians; 15, Antiscripturists; 16, Skeptics. 'The industrious writer,' says Neal, 'might have enlarged his catalogue with Papists, Prelatists, Deists, Ranters, Behemenists, etc., etc., or, if he had pleased, a less number might have served his turn, for very few of these sectaries were collected into societies; but his business was to blacken the adversaries of Presbyterian uniformity, that the Parliament might crush them by sanguinary methods.' See an account of this book in Neal, Part III. ch. vii. (Vol. II. p. 37), and Masson, Vol. III. pp. 143 sqq. The Scottish delegation was a unit on the subject, and Baillie wrote a Dissuasive from the Errors of the Time (1645) against toleration, and attacked it in his Letters.15371537   Innes (Law of Creeds, pp. 243 and 244) says: 'Toleration was long unknown in the law, as in the history, of Scotland. The intense sentiment of national unity was strongly against it. The nation was one, and the Church became one. The Church claimed to be the Church of Christ in the realm, exclusively and of divine right. . . . The Scottish commissioners went to the Westminster Assembly to work out the "covenanted uniformity in religion," and the new doctrine of the "toleration of sects" which met them there they most earnestly resisted. Innumerable pamphlets were published on both sides. The advocates of toleration were defeated, and could only exact from the Assembly the important declaration that God alone is Lord of the conscience.

And yet, if we judge the Westminster standards from the stand point of the seventeenth century, and compare them with similar documents, they must be pronounced moderate.

1. They go no further on the subject of intolerance than the Belgic Confession,15381538   Art. 36. See Vol. III. p. 432. the Gallican Confession,15391539   Art. 39. See Vol. III. p. 372. the English Articles,15401540    Art. 37. See Vol. III. p. 512. and the Irish Articles.15411541   No. 70. See Vol. III. p. 540. They teach less than is implied in the Anglican doctrine of the royal supremacy, which puts the religion of a whole nation in the hands of the temporal sovereign, and which was employed for the severest measures against all dissenters, Roman Catholic and Protestant.

2. The Presbyterians, during the fifteen years of their domination,15421542   We exempt the five years of Cromwell's Protectorate (1653–1658), during which the Independents were in the ascendency. used their power very moderately, with the exception of a wholesale ejectment of a large number of prelatists from office (allowing them, however, one fifth of their income). This was a folly and a crime (viewed from our standpoint), but not nearly as cruel as the hanging and burning, the imprisonment, torture, and mutilation so freely exercised against themselves and other non-conformists before 1640 and after 1661. During the disgraceful period of the Restoration, which they unwisely brought about without exacting any pledges from the faithless Stuart, they suffered for their loyalty to the Westminster standards as much hardship and displayed as much heroism, both in England and Scotland, as any Church or sect in Christendom ever did.15431543   A recent able writer, who has no sympathy whatever with the faith of Presbyterians, thus describes their persecutions under the Stuarts: 'In Scotland, during almost the whole period that the Stuarts were on the throne of England, a persecution rivaling in atrocity almost any on record was directed by the English government, at the instigation of the Scotch bishops, and with the approbation of the English Church, against all who repudiated episcopacy. If a conventicle was held in a house, the preacher was liable to be put to death. If it was held in the open air, both minister and people incurred the same fate. The Presbyterians were hunted like criminals over the mountains; their ears were torn from the roots; they were branded with hot irons; their fingers were wrenched asunder by the thumbkins; the bones of their legs were shattered in the boots; women were scourged publicly through the streets; multitudes were transported to the Barbadoes; an infuriated soldiery was let loose upon them, and encouraged to exercise all their ingenuity in torturing them.' (Lecky, l.c. Vol. II. p. 48, Amer. ed.)

3. The Confession expresses for the first time among the confessions of faith, whether consistently or not, the true principle of religious liberty, which was made the basis of the Act of Toleration, in the noble sentiment of Ch. XX. 2: 'God alone is Lord of the conscience (James iv. 12; Rom. xiv. 4), and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship (Acts iv. 19; v. 29; 1 Cor. vii. 23; Matt. xxiii. 8-10; xxv. 9; 2 Cor. 1, 24). So that to believe such doctrines or to obey such commandments out of conscience is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also' (Isa. viii. 20; Acts xvii. 11).

4. The objectionable clauses in the Confession and Larger Catechism have been mildly interpreted and so modified by the Presbyterian Churches in Europe as to disclaim persecuting sentiments.15441544   The Established Church of Scotland, the Original Secession Church, the English Presbyterian Church, and the Irish Presbyterian Church adhere to the 'whole doctrine' of the Westminster Confession, with a slight qualification of Ch. XXXI. 2. The Reformed Presbyterian Church does the same, but declares in its Testimony that it is 'not pledged to defend every sentiment or expression,' and asserts that 'to employ civil coercion of any kind for the purpose of inducing men to renounce an erroneous creed, or to espouse and profess a sound Scriptural one, is incompatible with the nature of true religion, and must ever prove ineffectual in practice.' The United Presbyterian Church introduces into its Formula of subscription this clause: 'It being understood that you are not required to approve of any thing in these documents which teaches, or is supposed to teach, compulsory or persecuting and intolerant, principles in religion.' The Free Church of Scotland meets the difficulty by a questionable exegesis, declaring (in an 'Act anent Questions and Formula,' June 1, 1846): ' The General Assembly, in passing this Act, 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 favoring 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.' See Innes, The Law of Creeds, pp. 453, 461, 463. The Presbyterian Churches in the United States have taken the more frank and effective course of an entire reconstruction of those chapters, so as to make them expressly teach the principle of religious freedom, and claim no favor from the civil magistrate but that protection which it owes to the lives, liberties, and constitutional rights of all its citizens.15451545   See next section.

GENERAL REMARKS ON THE PROGRESS OF RELIGIOUS LIBERTY.

The question in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was about toleration and persecution. But religious freedom requires much more, and is now regarded as one of the fundamental and most precious rights of men, which must be sacredly protected in its public exercise by the civil government, within the limits of order, peace, and public morals. This liberty is the final result and gain of ages of intolerance and persecution.

The history of religious persecution is the darkest chapter in Church history—we may call it the devil's chapter—and the darkest part in it is the persecution of Christians by Christians. It is, however, relieved by the counter-manifestation of the heroic virtues of Christian martyrdom and the slow but steady progress of liberty through streams of martyr blood.

All Christian Churches, except a few denominations of recent date which never had a chance, have more or less persecuted when in power, and must plead guilty. The difference is only one of degree. The Episcopalians were less intolerant than the Roman Catholics, the Presbyterians less intolerant than the Episcopalians, the Independents less intolerant (in theory) than the Presbyterians. But they were all intolerant. Even the Independents of Old England, with the great Cromwell and the great Milton as their leaders, excluded Romanists, Prelatists (i.e., Episcopalians), and Unitarians from their programme of toleration,15461546   Milton, the independent of Independents and the boldest as well as most eloquent champion of civil and religious liberty in the seventeenth century, was unwilling to tolerate Romanists, because he regarded them as idolaters and as enemies of freedom. See his Areopagitica, of which Lecky (Vol. II. p. 80) says that it is as glorious a monument of the genius of Milton as his Paradise Lost, and that it 'probably represents the very highest point that English eloquence has attained.' and, strange to say, when in power in New England, they expelled Baptists and hanged Quakers on the virgin soil of Massachusetts before and after the Westminster Assembly. On the other hand, however, there is not a Christian Church or sect that has not complained of intolerance and injustice under persecution, and that has not furnished some bold advocates of toleration and freedom, from Tertullian and Lactantius down to Roger Williams and William Penn. This is the redeeming feature in this fearful picture, and must not be overlooked in making up a just estimate.

It is therefore the greatest possible injustice to charge the persecutions to Christianity, which breathes the very opposite spirit of forbearance, forgiveness, love, and liberality; which teaches us to suffer wrong rather than to inflict wrong; and which, by restoring the divine image in man, and lifting him up to the sphere of spiritual freedom, is really the pure source of all that is truly valuable in our modern ideas of civil and religious liberty. Whatever may be said of the severity of the Mosaic legislation, which assumes the union of the civil and ecclesiastical power, Christ and the Apostles, both by precept and example, strictly prohibit the use of carnal means for the promotion of the kingdom of heaven, which is spiritual in its origin, character, and aim. The reminiscence of this spirit lingered in the Church through the darkest ages in the maxim Ecclesia non sitit sanguinem.

It is also wrong to derive intolerance from the strength and intensity of religious conviction—although this undoubtedly may come in as an additional stimulus—and to trace toleration to skepticism and unbelief.15471547   This is the theory of Lecky. For who had stronger convictions than St. Paul? His Jewish conviction or pharisaical fanaticism made him a bitter persecutor, but his Christian conviction inspired his seraphic description of love (1 Cor. xiii.) and strengthened him for martyrdom. On the other hand, the Deist philosopher, Hobbes, by giving the civil power an absolute right to determine the religion of a nation, taught the extreme doctrine of persecution; and the reign of terror in France proves that infidelity may be as fanatical and intolerant as the strongest faith, and may instigate the most horrible of persecutions.

Intolerance is rooted in the selfishness and ambition of human nature and in the spirit of sectarian exclusiveness, which assumes that we and the sect to which we belong have the monopoly of truth and orthodoxy, and that all who dissent from us must be in error. Persecution follows as a legitimate consequence of this selfishness and bigotry wherever the intolerant party has the power to persecute.

The Roman Church, wherever she controls the civil government, can not consistently tolerate, much less legally recognize, any form of worship besides her own, because she identifies herself with the infallible Church of Christ, out of which there is no salvation, and regards all who dissent from her as damnable schismatics and heretics.15481548   The limited toleration in some Roman Catholic countries exists in spite of Romanism, and the liberal opinions and Christian feelings of individual Catholics have no influence on the system, which is the same as ever, as may be inferred from the papal Syllabus of 1864, and from the recent papal protest against even the minimum of religious toleration in Spain (1876). In Protestant countries the Roman Church claims as much liberty as she can get, and advocates toleration in her own interest, but would deny it to others as soon as she attained to power. Protestants, who began with the assertion of private judgment against the authority of Rome, and complained bitterly of her persecuting spirit, are inconsistent and more inexcusable if they refuse the same right to others and persecute them for its exercise. For a long time, however, Protestantism clung to the traditional idea of uniformity in religion, and this was the source of untold suffering, especially in England, until it became manifest beyond a doubt that doctrinal and ceremonial uniformity was an impossibility in a nation of intelligent freemen. The Toleration Act of May 24, 1689, for the relief of Dissenters, marks the transition. Since that time religious persecution by the civil power has ceased in the Anglo-Saxon race, and the principle of religious liberty has gradually become a settled conviction of the most advanced sections of the Christian world.

For this change of public sentiment the chief merit is due to the English Non-conformists, who in the school of persecution became advocates of toleration, especially to the Baptists and Quakers, who made religious liberty (within the limits of the golden rule) an article of their creed, so that they could not consistently persecute even if they should ever have a chance to do so.15491549   See the 'Fourteenth Proposition' of Barclay, adopted by the Quakers: 'Since God hath assumed to himself the power and dominion of the conscience, who alone can rightly instruct and govern it, therefore it is not lawful for any whatsoever, by virtue of any authority or principality they bear in the government of this world, to force the consciences of others; and therefore all killing, banishing, fining, imprisoning, and other such things, which men are afflicted with, for the alone exercise of their conscience, or difference in worship or opinion, proceedeth from the spirit of Cain, the murderer, and is contrary to the truth; provided always that no man, under the pretense of conscience, prejudice his neighbor in his life or estate, or do any thing destructive to, or inconsistent with, human society; in which case the law is for the transgressor, and justice to be administered upon all, without respect of persons.' This was published in 1675. Bossuet, therefore, was imperfectly informed when at the close of the seventeenth century (1688) he mentioned the Anabaptists and Socinians as the only Christians who did not admit the power of the civil sword 'dans les matières de la religion et de la conscience' (Hist. des Variations, LIV. X. 56). It was next promoted by the eloquent advocacy of toleration in the writings of Chillingworth,15501550   The Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation, 1637 (or 1638; dedicated in a most humble preface to King Charles I.; 3d ed. 1664; 10th ed. 1742; reprinted in the first two vols. of the Oxford ed. of Chillingworth's Works, 1838, in 3 vols.). This book is a vindication of Protestantism and of the author's return to it, and proclaims that the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, is the religion of Protestants, and that no Church of one denomination is infallible. At Chillingworth's burial, in Jan., 1644, Dr. Cheynell, who had shown him great kindness during his sickness, flung this book into the grave, with the words, 'Get thee gone, thou cursed book; go rot with thy author.' Chillingworth, however, had no idea of civil liberty, and wrote as an extreme royalist on the Unlawfulness of Resisting the Lawful Prince, although most Impious, Tyrannical, and Idolatrous. Jeremy Taylor,15511551   Liberty of Prophesying, written in exile (1647), and unfortunately retracted in part after the Restoration by the author himself, who declared it to have been a ruse de guerre. Coleridge regards this weakness as almost the only stain on Taylor's character. and other Anglican divines of the latitudinarian school; further, by the mingling of creeds and sects in the same country where persecution failed of its aim; and, lastly, by the skeptical philosophy and the religious indifferentism of the eighteenth century, which, however, has repeatedly shown itself most intolerant of all forms of positive belief, and can therefore be no more trusted than the bigotry of superstition. Religious freedom is best guaranteed by an enlightened Christian civilization, a liberal culture, a large-hearted Christian charity, a comprehensive view of truth, a free social intercourse of various denominations, and a wise separation of civil and ecclesiastical government.

During the last stages of the age of persecution Providence began to prepare in the colonies of North America the widest field and the proper social basis for the full exercise of religious liberty and equality by bringing together under one government the persecuted of all nations and sects, so that the enjoyment of the liberty of each depends upon and is guaranteed by the recognition and protection of the liberty of all the rest.


« Prev Criticism of the Westminster System of Doctrine. Next »

Advertisements


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |