Confessions of faith, have generally, been considered as subordinate standards in the church. They have been viewed as a constitutional security to the church, regulating the ecclesiastical citizenship of her members. It is not, therefore, a very uncommon thing, that they should be supposed, and in some instances, declared, to contain the terms of church communion; i.e., the terms upon which, and upon which alone, an individual can be admitted into church fellowship.
It is, however, doubted by the author of the Plea for Sacramental Communion on Catholic Principles, whether such an opinion be correct, and such a declaration discreet? [Plea, Page 351.] And he refuses that when they are expanded into a comprehensive system of theology, as in the Westminster confession, they ought to be proposed for approbation, in all their latitude, to every one who desires baptism for his children, or a seat at the table of the Lord. [Page 353.] Taking care at the same time to warn the reader, not to be stumbled at what might thwart his prepossessions.
There was need for this warning, especially as he had immediately before maintained that they ought to be a test to the ministers of the church, and terms of official union. [Ibid., p. 352, 353.] He views a confession of faith as the “fixed testimony of a church,” and seems to think it difficult to conceive, “how it can be dispensed with,” when the doctrine, government, and worship of the Christian church “are matters of controversy.”
His arguments in support of the view he takes of this subject are, that it was not the original design of the Protestant confessions, that they should be terms of communion for private Christians—that they were not in fact terms of communion for private Christians; nor even for the reciprocation of ministerial fellowship—and because they cannot be, in effect, terms of Christian (we presume he means what we call church) communion.
The Dr.’s arguments, however, do not seem altogether satisfactory. He grants that the confession of faith is the church’s fixed testimony. It does not appear quite correct to denominate a confession of faith a testimony, as these have been, from time immemorial, in the usage of reformed churches, considered as distinct.—A testimony, as a public document in a church, has uniformly been understood, to be distinguished from her confession of faith, by, not only stating the doctrinal articles of the holy scriptures, as the confession also did, but likewise stating the contrary errors, and testifying against all that held them, which the confession did not.
We know of but one instance, where a church in her judicial capacity, [i.e., in the formation of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian church which abandoned the Testimonies of both Seceders and Covenanters] attempted to amalgamate these two distinct, public documents, by representing her confession of faith as her fixed testimony. And even the approbation of Dr. Mason, will not be sufficient, to sanction the unwarrantable departure from principle and usage.
But taking it in his own application, as the fixed testimony of the church, it appears not a little strange, that the members of the church should not be bound by the church’s testimony. A testimony is the evidence which a witness gives in court, or when regularly called before some tribunal. It is generally given on oath, but whether or not, it is constantly understood to be the act and deed of the witness himself—that he is the author of his own testimony, and that he declares what he believes to be the truth. The contrary of any of these would render a witness something worse than suspicious, and his testimony wholly unworthy of credit.
According to the Dr. we have here the testimony—the fixed testimony of the church, but her members are not bound to believe it. The officers to be sure must all believe the evidence which they have given, but the private members need not! This is rather serious trifling. In all conscience, would it not be better not to admit them to give testimony at all?
But I shall be told, this is the very thing contended for. This same fixed testimony is not to regulate private communion—it is not required of every one—it ought not to be even proposed to every one for approbation in all its latitude. Then it is not, it seems, after all, the fixed testimony of the church. It is only the fixed testimony of the officers of the church. Why then is it denominated the fixed testimony of the church? Do officers alone constitute the church? I know they do constitute the church judicative. But is that what is meant by the church, when the principles of the church—the doctrines of the church—the tenets of the church—the confessions or testimonies of the church are spoken of?
Let this matter be fairly understood. Let the people who are immediately concerned, be apprized of this fact. “You, the private members of this church, are not to consider yourselves, as having any thing to do with the confession of faith. That belongs to us the ministers and officers, and it is our confession of faith, not yours. For this strong reason, that it is the fixed testimony of the church, and we are the church. If you were the church, then indeed, it would be your testimony, and you would have to believe it, for it would be ridiculous to suppose, that you were giving a testimony that you yourselves did not believe. It would even forfeit your claims to moral honesty, should it be true, and, in fact, make you neither more nor less than false witnesses. Now the point to be supported is this, you may be admitted to communion though you should not approve of the fixed testimony of the church. It must not then be your testimony, the confession of your faith—your principles or your terms of communion.”
If this be refused, and the side taken that will embrace the private members, in the testimony of the church, then it is respectfully enquired how the testimony that these private members give is to be no test to them, while the same testimony is to be a test to the officers? There probably would not have been all this torturing contradiction, if the confession had been kept in its own place, and not forced to invade the territories of the testimony. But even then the denying the confession of one’s faith would have been tormenting.
There is a difficulty even respecting the ministers themselves, and their connection with this testimony, which does not appear quite so easy to be removed, as could be wished. Why should they be bound by this test, and the private members be all free?—I say all free; for if one may be admitted not approving, that is disapproving, in other words denying the confession of faith, another may; all may. And why not? Confessions of faith were never, it seems, intended to regulate private communion, neither by their original design, nor in fact, nor in effect. The question then is, why is it necessary that the ministers should be so bound, when the system to which they are bound is of so little impedance, that all the private members of the church may be admitted to communion, disapproving it? Is this order or confusion?
There is yet another difficult case, among these tests and no tests, that it would be desirable if light could be cast upon it. We shall endeavour to prepare it for the reception of light, by shewing that it needs it.
It is strenuously contended by the Dr. that the ministers of the church must all be bound by her fixed testimony. It must be a test to them. The church “must exact from them a positive unequivocating engagement, to maintain her confession of faith, constructed so as "to contain all those cardinal points which are essential to Christian faith and fellowship,” and likewise “others, which though not thus essential, are nevertheless, important; and worthy to be maintained with zeal and constancy.” [Plea, p. 352-354] While at the same time, he maintains, that as “thus constructed, they were not in fact terms of communion—even for the reciprocation of ministerial fellowship.”
It is no easy matter to reconcile all this. The maintaining the confession with “an explicit avowal,” and “a positive, unequivocating engagement,” is strictly enjoined, as a necessary test to be exacted from all the church’s ministers; while at the same time it is to be no term of communion “for the reciprocation of ministerial fellowship.” We learn from the Dr.’s practice, and explanations given at the beginning of his book, what he means by “ministerial reciprocation.” The question now to be asked, is, whether the minister who reciprocates with Dr. Mason, be, while he is officiating in his church, for the time one of the church’s ministers? If he is not, what relation is there between him and the church? And how came he there? Or what is the church doing with ministers that she claims not as hers? If he be one of her ministers, as common sense would say he is, what about the test—the explicit avowal of her confession, and the positive, unequivocating engagement to maintain it? While at the same time this very test, avowal, and engagement, is not a term of communion for the reciprocation of ministerial fellowship. We are not able to admit both sides.
But it seems that this liberal mode of dispensing with the confession of faith, has had advocates 100 years ago. Professor Dunlop, we are informed, [Plea, p. 354. 355.] “in a work expressly defending confessions of faith,” refuses that ever the church of Scotland established the confession of faith, a term of communion.
Professor Dunlop appears to have been about as firm a defender of confessions of faith as Dr. Mason; but according to his own account, was not so hardly beset by the judicial acts of his church as the Dr. is by his. “In so far as is known to us,” says Dunlop, as quoted by Dr. Mason, “there is no act of Assembly, nor even of any inferiour church-judicature, establishing the confession of faith a term of Christian communion, and requiring an assent thereto from Christian parents, in order to their being admitted to all the privileges of church communion, and particularly the baptism of their children.”
But the Dr. informs us, [Ibid., p. 356.] that “the Westminster confession of faith, catechisms, form of church-government, and directories for worship, are declaratively and legally terms of permanent communion or membership in the Associate Reformed church.” [The Westminster Confession!—He surely would be understood cum grano salis (with a grain of salt). Is there no alteration?] But having quoted Dunlop, whose work he takes care to inform us, “was first published at Edinburgh, in 1719; thirteen years before Ebenezer Erskine’s famous sermon which occasioned the Secession,” he adds, “such were the views and practice of the church of Scotland before the Secession.” That is to say, such is the account of the views and practice of the church of Scotland before the Secession, given by Professor Dunlop, therefore they were the views and practice of the church of Scotland.
One hundred years after this, a person reading Dr. Mason’s views of confessions of faith, might draw the conclusion that such were the views and the practice of the Associate Reformed church, unless happily he should notice the place where the Dr. states that the (he says Westminster) confession of faith, catechisms, &c. are declaratively and legally terms of permanent communion or membership in that church. He would then discover that the Dr. was writing against his own church; notwithstanding his agreement with these very terms of communion; for we cannot suppose, that there was an exception made in his favour, from the terms of permanent communion, or membership in his own church.
“Such were the views and practice of the church of Scotland before the Secession.” It would seem by this remark, that the Dr. means to charge the Seceders with being the first, who ever viewed the confession of faith as a term of communion. The Dr. undesignedly does them honour. For if it were true that the church never made her own confession of faith, a confession and profession of the faith of her members until the Secession did it, then they were the first whoever had correct views of the church’s confession of faith, or ever applied it according to its very name; and the use for which it was designed. Indeed, there is no doubt but their views of the confession were very different from those exhibited by Professor Dunlop. But that there was such an opinion as he represents, entertained by himself, and many more in the Revolution church, it is supposed no one will call in question.—The famous sermon by Ebenezer Erskine, and the rise of the Secession occasioned by that sermon, furnish the most indubitable proof that there were many erroneous opinions, entertained by the church of Scotland at that time. The confession, however, was a term of communion long before the rise of the Secession.
To obtain correct views of the confession of faith, and how it was used in relation to communion, we must go a little farther back, than thirteen years before Mr. Erskine’s sermon;—to a period of greater purity in the church of Scotland, than that in which Professor Dunlop lived. The Revolution church of Scotland, never was to be compared to the Reformation church of Scotland.
The approving act of the General Assembly of a church far superior in purity and faithfulness, to the present establishments in Britain, will give other views of the nature and use of the confession of faith, than those afforded by their time serving successors.
This act commences, with declaring a confession of faith to be the chiefest part of uniformity in religion, &c. It further states that the confession of faith agreed upon by the Assembly of Divines sitting at Westminster, had been duly examined, and found most agreeable to the word of God—and that the General Assembly did, after mature deliberation, agree unto, and approve the said confession, as to the truth of the matter, as most orthodox, and grounded upon the word of God—as to the point of uniformity, agreeing that it be a common confession of faith for the three kingdoms.
The new notion of its being a confession only for the ministers and officers of the church, was not then known.
The Solemn League and Covenant, and acts respecting it, will further elucidate and establish the point, that the confession was intended to be a term of communion, generally, and not to be confined to the ministers and officers of the church only. The first article of the Solemn League engages to this confession, and is not confined to the officers of the church, but embraces the common people of all sorts. The act of commission of the General Assembly, Oct. 11, 1643, did, by virtue of power given them by the Assembly, ordain, that the Solemn League and Covenant, be, with all due solemnity, sworn, not only by all the ministers, but by all the professors within the kirk, and that this be universally performed. The same decree obliges every minister upon the first Lord’s day after the Solemn League and Covenant shall come to his hands, to read and explain it, and by exhortations to prepare the people, to the swearing and subscribing thereof, solemnly, on the next Lord’s day—and that suitable censure, through the interference of the several Presbyteries, should be inflicted on such as refused to swear, and their names notified to the commission of the General Assembly. Was not this making the confession, which the Covenant embraces, a term of communion?
It seems, then, that the Secession are not entitled to either the credit or the disgrace, of being the first who made the confession of faith a term of communion, the authority of Dr. Mason, aided by all the authority of Professor Dunlop to the contrary notwithstanding. Indeed, it was drawing too deep upon the credulity of his readers, to make such a representation.
The Dr.’s last reason why the confession of faith ought not to be made a term of communion to private Christians, is taken from the nature of the thing, “it cannot be, in effect a term of communion.”
But it does not appear, that there is any more weight in this reason, than in that taken from authority, which we have already considered. It never was intended, that all, to whom the confession is to be made a term of communion, should be able, either clearly to explain, or even to understand all the system of divine truth contained in it;—“a work which occupied for years the care and study of a body of divines, second to none in the world—covering the whole ground of didactic and polemic theology.”—It is enough that so far as they understand it they are agreed with it; and hold no opinion subversive of its known doctrines. They are disciples. The church is a school, where they come to learn, and to be more thoroughly instructed in the knowledge of the doctrines of salvation. A competent knowledge, and a perfect knowledge, may be very different things, though having the same thing for their object. Might it not be difficult, sometimes, upon the ground of the objection, to apply the case admitted by the Dr. himself? namely, that the confession should be a test to the officers of the church.
With pleasure we admit, that Dr. Mason is a scholar and a divine. And with confidence we put the question to himself, If a perfect, or even a correct, and accurate knowledge of the “whole doctrine of those standards,” were required from every officer in the church, how many of them could abide the ordeal? The Dr. is acquainted with many ministers in different churches, who, more or less, claim the confession of faith. Does he believe, that all these are proficients in the system, which “covers the whole ground of didactic and polemic theology?”—that they are all able “to grasp a work like this?—to distinguish its numerous propositions; and to fathom their sense?” We shall venture the answer in the negative.
There must be a discretionary power used.—Something qualifying as to the degree of knowledge. While it will be sternly required, that they hold no opposite principle, no contradictory doctrine. And will not the same principle extend to the private members of the church? The allowance may be greater, but the principle is the same. Whatever, therefore, be the force of the objection, upon the allowed principle of the Dr.’s own application of it, if it operates against us, it equally, in the nature of the thing operates against himself, and is calculated to set aside the use of confessions of faith altogether.
 See also Act of Commiss. Of the Gen. Ass. For renewing the Solemn League and Covenant. Edinb. Oct. 6, 1648. Likewise, Act of the Gen. Assembly, against Disaffecters of the Covenant. Edinb. June 3, 1644. Sess. 6.