BY THE LATE
GEORGE STEVENSON, D.D.
AUTHOR OF A DISSERTATION ON THE ATONEMENT,
“I will for their sakes remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt, in the sight of the heathen, that I might be their God: I am the Lord.”-LEV. xxvi. 45.
W. P. KENNEDY, 15 SOUTH ST ANDREW STREET.
GLASGOW: D. BRYCE. AYR: D. GUTHRIE. GREENOCK: J. G. BANKIER, DUNDEE: W. MIDDLETON, PERTH: J. DEWAR.
ABERDEEN: C. PANTON. BELFAST: W. M‘COMB. LONDON:
HAMILTON, ADAMS, AND CO.
As two editions of the Plea have been exhausted, the Editor, at the solicitation of many of his friends, presents a new edition to the public. He has however, been induced to take this step chiefly by the conviction that the re-publication of it is peculiarly seasonable, and, by the Divine blessing, may prove eminently useful at the present juncture. The recent disruption in the Established Church has given a powerful impulse to the public mind. Not a few have, in consequence, been led to inquire more minutely into the principles and contendings of the Church of Scotland at the Reformation; and have thus begun to appreciate the importance of the duty of public religious covenanting. To explain, vindicate, and revive the cause of the Covenanted Reformation, and to promote union among its friends, were the leading objects which the lamented Author had in view. He had the satisfaction of living to witness the incipient accomplishment of these desirable ends; and should the present re-publication contribute to their further attainment, the Editor will feel that any care bestowed on the present edition will be amply rewarded.
KILWINNING, April 1844.
A Statement of the Reformation Cause, ….
Remarks on Public Religious Covenanting.—A Vindication of the continued obligation of the federal deeds of our ancestors, by which the Reformation in Britain and Ireland was consolidated.—Objections answered, ….
The nature and importance of a Testimony for the Principles of the Reformation, and in opposition to defections from them, in present times; as a term of Ministerial and Christian Communion, in the Secession Church, ….
The nature and use of Public Creeds.—Objections answered,--Reasons of adherence to the Westminster Confession, ….
THE COVENANTED REFORMATION
BRITAIN AND IRELAND.
THE Reformation in Scotland having been effected chiefly during two periods; these are generally designated the First and Second REFORMATIONS. The First was a reformation from Popery. Its commencement may be dated from the year 1527, when the light of evangelical truth began to dawn upon our country by the ministry of Hamilton and Wishart. It was carried on with more or less success, notwithstanding much opposition from the Popish clergy, till the end of that century. The idolatrous rites of the Church of Rome were abolished, and the worship of God set up in a great degree of purity. The Popish hierarchy was overturned, and the Presbyterial form of church-government established. These attainments in Reformation were consolidated by the National Covenant of Scotland, which was sworn and subscribed by all ranks, in the year 1581. The reformation of the external order of God's house was accompanied with a remarkable revival of the power of religion. His word had free course, and was glorified. A nation was born at once, and a kingdom as in one day.
The Second Reformation was a reformation from Prelacy. From the accession of James VI. to the throne of England, in the year 1603, Episcopacy had been gradually introduced into the Church of Scotland by the influence of the Court. Her mode of worship, as well as her form of government, was changed, and nothing would satisfy the Court, but complete conformity in her constitution and administration, to the Church of England. But in the beginning of the year 1638, the friends of the Reformation cause, and of the civil liberties of their country, who had long groaned under the yoke of civil and ecclesiastical tyranny, found themselves called upon to make a firm but constitutional stand, in opposition to the encroachments made upon their liberties. To strengthen one another’s hands, and promote mutual confidence, they renewed the National Covenant of Scotland, in a bond suited to their circumstances. This was followed by petitions to the Court, signed by persons of all ranks, to call a General Assembly to settle the affairs of the Church, and a Parliament to rectify disorders in the State. After some delay, and a number of intrigues to defeat the designs of the petitioners, these were granted; and from these events we are to date the commencement of the reformation from Prelacy.
The Assembly, which met at Glasgow, November 1638, had scarcely entered on business, when the King’s Commissioner, according to his instructions, attempted to dissolve the meeting, by discharging them from further procedure under pain of treason. But they asserted the intrinsic right of the Assembly to meet in Christ’s name, and to settle what referred to his house; and continued their sittings till their business was finished. This Assembly condemned Episcopacy, as destitute of any warrant from Scripture,—censured the bishops according to the demerit of their offences,—declared the unlawfulness of six General Assemblies, which had introduced and supported the late innovations,—pronounced the civil places and power of churchmen to be unlawful,—and condemned the Five Articles of Perth, the Liturgy, the book of canons, the high commission courts, and several Arminian errors. It restored the Presbyterial form of government, prohibited the intrusion of ministers on reclaiming congregations, and asserted the intrinsic power of the Church to call her own assemblies. Nor must we overlook the acts which the Assembly passed in this, and subsequent meetings, for promoting practical godliness, and raising the tone of public morals. Though these acts do not occupy such a prominent place in the page of the historian, as those which relate to the public state of affairs in the Church, they are to be viewed as vital parts of the Reformation, on account of their immediate tendency to promote pure and undefiled religion.
This reformation, so happily begun in Scotland, soon extended to England. The friends of civil and religious liberty in both countries, now convinced that they could vindicate their just rights, in opposition to the arbitrary measures of the Court, only by a closer union among themselves, in the year 1643, framed the Solemn League and Covenant. This bond, after having received the approbation of the public authorities in both kingdoms, was joyfully sworn and subscribed by persons of all ranks in Scotland, England, and Ireland. From this time, the Reformation was carried on upon a larger scale. The Solemn League had for its declared objects, not only the preservation of the reformed religion in Scotland, and the reformation of religion in England and Ireland, but the assimilation of the Churches in the three kingdoms to the nearest uniformity with one another, and with the Reformed Churches abroad, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government. The scheme projected by it was most glorious. It was a scheme of union upon a most extended scale; and of union, in the way not of burying truth, or abandoning any former attainment in religion, but of carrying forward reformation by bringing the Church, in principle and practice, to a greater nearness to the pattern laid down in the word of God,—a scheme which, no doubt, partially failed at the time when it was projected, and has not to this day been fully executed; but which shall be carried into full effect when the Lord shall be one, and his name one over all the earth.
In prosecuting the ends of this League, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland sent eight of their number to assist in the Assembly of Divines met at Westminster. The Westminster Confession of Faith,—the Larger and Shorter Catechisms,—the Directory for Worship,—and the Form of Presbyterial Church-government, were the fruits of their joint labours. These were transmitted to the General Assembly of the Church in Scotland; and after due deliberation, were, with the limitations mentioned in their acts, received by them as standards of uniformity, to which the three kingdoms were bound to adhere by their Solemn League and Covenant. By the deeds of Assembly approving of and adopting the Westminster Standards, and their subsequent procedure in framing and adopting a Directory for family worship, and abolishing patronage, the religious reformation arrived at the greatest height to which it has been carried in this country. Since that time the faithful in Scotland have been engaged in endeavouring to maintain what God had wrought for them; and in this arduous and honourable work, many of them have sealed their testimony with their blood.
But the Reformation in this country was not confined to the Church and her judicatories. It was taken up during both periods, as a great national cause,—a cause conducive to the advancement of the best interests of civil, as well as of religious society. The civil rulers in this, as well as in other countries, had given their power and dominion to Antichrist. But during both reforming periods, the power of God was wonderfully displayed in bringing them forward to co-operate with the Church in promoting the cause of Reformation. This they did, not only by abolishing the Pope’s supremacy, and afterwards Prelacy,—rescinding those laws which had been framed in support of Antichristian idolatry and superstition,-reforming abuses which had crept into the courts of justice,—excluding the openly profane, and persons hostile to the Reformation cause, from places of power and trust,—and by many laudable acts tending to suppress vice and profaneness, and to raise the tone of public morals throughout the nation; but also by ratifying the whole religious Reformation, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government, and by making provision for the public support and protection of the reformed religion.
These civil enactments, as they regarded the Reformation Standards, were never meant to give them validity, or to add to their authority as ecclesiastical deeds. They were intended merely to define the profession of religion adopted by the nation, and to give the national pledge for its protection and support. If the nation was to give its countenance and decided support to any particular profession of religion, to render that support valid in law, it was necessary that it should be specified, and defined, by some act of the Legislature. The same thing is still done, when the protection of the State is extended to any benevolent society. Its nature, object, and organic rules are stated in the preamble, or in the body of the protecting statute. That no more was intended by these civil ratifications appears from their not having been accompanied with penal sanctions. The things ratified were purely religious; and while the State pledged its faith to the Church to protect her in the maintenance of them, she was left to enforce them solely by her own spiritual authority.
We are aware, that many are strongly prepossessed against the Reformation cause, on account of the doctrine of the Reformers, respecting the Magistrate's authority relative to religious matters, and its application in carrying on that work; as if both that doctrine, and its application to practical purposes, were inconsistent with the freedom, spirituality, and independence of the kingdom of Christ. Our limits will not admit of our entering at large upon the subject, but it must not be entirely overlooked, since intimately connected with the defence, both of the Westminster Confession, and the conduct of our Reformers.
In entering upon the question, we would call the attention of our readers to the following preliminary remarks. First, When the compilers of the Westminster Confession speak of the authority of the Magistrate about the Church, he is not to be understood in his individual capacity, but as at the head of the administration of the nation over which he presides. The power pleaded for, is the power of the nation, as exercised by the Magistrate. Nor does the expression, “the Magistrate,” in the Confession, and the writings of divines on this subject, mean exclusively the person at the head of the executive government, such as the king, but it is a general name for all possessing civil authority, in their respective places, legislative or executive. Secondly, The Confession assigns to the Magistrate no power over the Church, or in things sacred. The power assigned to him, is not a lordly supremacy over the Church. The Confession expressly asserts the sole headship of Christ over the Church, his spiritual kingdom: chap. 25, sect. 6, “There is no other head of the Church, but the Lord Jesus Christ.” Neither is it a ministerial authority in the Church. He must not interfere with her internal government: chap. 30, sect. 1, “The Lord Jesus, as King and Head of his Church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the Civil Magistrate.” Sect. 2, “To these officers, the keys of the kingdom of heaven are committed.” He must not, as a Magistrate, sustain himself a public judge of true or false religion, or dictate to his subjects in matters purely religious: chap. 31, sect. 3, “It belongeth to Synods, and Councils, ministerially to determine matters of faith, and cases of conscience, to set down rules for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of the Church,” &c. “Moreover, he must not take upon himself the administration of any of her ordinances of worship.” Chap. 23, sect. 3, “The Civil Magistrate must not assume to himself the administration of the word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Now, since the authority of the Magistrate is thus limited by the compilers of the Confession themselves, the power they assign to him cannot be a power over the Church, or in things sacred. It must therefore be, simply, a right to employ the influence of his station about the Church, for promoting her interests. But it is the duty of every man to exert the influence of his station in life for that end; and if God has made it his duty, he must also have given him a right to discharge that duty. Why then deny to civil rulers the right of casting the influence of their station into the scale of religion?
Having made these preliminary remarks, we shall for the farther illustration of the subject, submit to our readers, the following general observations.
First, That though ecclesiastical government is distinct from civil government, and though the two should never be confounded in administration; yet they should not be opposed to each other, as if incapable of all friendly intercourse, or co-operation about objects common to both. They are both ordinances of God for the good of mankind. “The powers that be, are ordained of God.” But no two ordinances of God can be opposite to, or eversive of each other. Whenever the Church is, in Scripture, opposed to the kingdoms of this world, it is not to civil government in the abstract, but to its corruptions through the mal-administration of men. The moral government of God in the world is distinct from his gracious government in the Church, but not opposite to it. Neither should those who rule under Him as a moral governor, be opposed to those who rule under Him as the God of grace. Moreover, every act of his government in the world is made subservient to the interests of his spiritual kingdom in the Church. “He ruleth in (for) Jacob unto the ends of the earth.” And when the civil governments in the world attain to that reformation which is predicted in the page of prophecy,—acting in their own proper sphere, and pursuing their own proper ends, every act of their administration will be conducive to the good of the Church. Providence has always secretly over-ruled their managements in such a manner as that they have been made ultimately to promote the good of the Church; but at the happy period referred to, this will be the aim of those who hold the reins of government, and the direct tendency of their administration. When the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our God and of his Christ, civil rulers, without encroaching upon the sole headship of Christ over his Church, or the functions of those who minister in holy things, will throw all the influence of their exalted station into the scale of revealed religion. The Scriptures explain the reason why such a scheme of things, though attempted, has not yet succeeded, at least for any length of time. The toes of the great image spoken of by Daniel, which correspond to the ten horns of the Apocalyptic beast, still exercise their dominion over the nations. But when “the judgment shall sit, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume and to destroy it unto the end. And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High,”[Dan. vii. 26, 27.] then the scheme projected by our reforming ancestors, of co-operation between the Church and the State, in carrying on a work of reformation, each acting in its own proper sphere, will not only be improved, but carried into full effect. The Church and the State will still remain distinct; but there will be a friendly intercourse between them. Civil rulers will then take all the advantage of the light emitted by the Church, to aid and direct them in pursuing the ends of civil government. On the other hand, the Church, without being in danger of Erastian encroachments upon her liberties, will enjoy public countenance, outward protection, and support, from the State; for, in the language of inspiration, “the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it, and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it.”[Rev. xxi. 24.]
Secondly, Though civil government lies within the compass of natural principles, and has for its main ends the order and good of outward society, to the glory of God; yet civil rulers have a deep interest in the propagation and maintenance of revealed religion, as it contains a perfect system of moral natural law. They are the civil guardians of the public morals of their subjects, and when favoured with supernatural revelation, they are bound to make the revealed law of God not only the rule of their own conduct, but of their public administration in what regards morality. A great confusion of ideas, we apprehend, has arisen on this subject from not distinguishing between that which in the Bible has its foundation in natural religion and law, and that which is purely supernatural. The whole Bible is supernatural with respect to its revelation, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God;” but many truths in the Bible have their foundation in natural principles. Man has, it is true, lost sight of them in a great measure since his fall, but still they are founded on the relations which necessarily subsist between God and his rational creatures. Of this description are the Decalogue and other rules throughout the Scriptures, which have a respect to moral conduct in the several stations in which we may be placed, as parents or children, masters or servants, rulers or subjects. These are adapted to human society in general. They are, indeed, incorporated with supernatural religion; for believers are not without law to God, but under the law to Christ; and in this view, the administration of these laws belongs exclusively to Church office-bearers. But will any person affirm that these laws, as thus revealed, were intended by God for men only when acting as members of religious society; or that they are not binding upon them when pursuing their respective callings in civil life? Are men to study conformity to the moral law, as revealed in the Bible, only when they are in the place of the holy; and, as soon as they leave it, to regulate their conduct merely by its faint remains on the natural conscience? Are they to be Christians in the Church, and Heathens in the Forum? Is the head of a family, when acting in the capacity of a church member, to take for his rule the written law; but in his family government to confine himself to the law of nature? Is the same individual, when officiating in the Church as a minister of Jesus, to tell his hearers that the Bible is the standard of morals; but in the Ethic chair to seek for it in the writings of Seneca, Plato, or Aristotle? And must the Legislative body, in a Christian country, in framing laws for the administration of justice, the preservation of social order, and the punishment of public crimes; and the Magistrate, in executing these laws, shut their eyes upon the light of Divine revelation, and collect all their ideas about right and wrong from the obscure lamp of fallen reason? And must all this be done to prevent a coalition between civil and religious society, or an improper connection between the Church of Christ and the kingdoms of men? The idea is most absurd; it is an idea, however, which has been acted upon to the great injury of civil and religious society. But since revealed religion furnishes the most complete system of morals, and since public morals are essential to social order, it follows, that it deeply concerns civil rulers, in prosecuting the ends of their office, that their subjects be furnished with pious and faithful ministers of religion. The cause of morality is the common cause of the Church and of the State; and as it is the proper business of the Church to expound the laws of God, so civil rulers can in no way so effectually secure the design of their office, as it regards the prevention of crimes, and the advancement of public morals, as by giving the ministers of religion their countenance, support, and protection.
Thirdly, Though civil rulers have no power in matters of supernatural religion, yet they have a deep interest in its propagation and success. As civil rulers, its propagation does not stand related to their office as an end; for the end of their office is limited to the overt actions of men as good or bad. But they have a deep interest in it, as it is, of all means, the most conducive to the advancement of the direct ends of their office. Morality has its foundations in religious principle, and the doctrines and institutions of supernatural religion, and these only can effectually secure the public morals of a country. It is the grace of God which teaches men to live soberly and righteously; and sobriety and righteousness are the principal ingredients of social order. The doctrines of supernatural religion have a powerful influence upon all the ordinary duties of life. Hence they are all enforced in Scripture, by arguments taken from these doctrines. This being the case, those rulers who have felt their salutary influence, and observed it in others, for promoting good works, must see it to be their duty, even in subserviency to the ends of their office, to employ the influence of their station to have the gospel purely preached, and its ordinances purely administered throughout their dominions.
But the question still remains, by what authority are they to act, and what means are they to employ for these purposes? In reply, we would have our readers carefully to observe, that Christianity invests civil rulers with no new powers, for magistracy is not founded in grace. But since even the law of nature binds mankind in general to believe and practise whatever God is pleased to reveal as a rule of faith and manners, the same law by which civil rulers hold their office, must bind them in every country where supernatural revelation is enjoyed, to give it “free course,” and employ all their influence in promoting the ends of it, provided they do not overstretch the original design of their office.—Supernatural revelation enlarges the sphere of operation in discharging the duties connected with every station and relation among mankind. The relation of a father, and the authority connected with it, are founded on natural principles; yet parents who enjoy the gospel are without doubt bound, and bound too by natural law, to employ their parental authority in subserviency to the interests of revealed religion. The same observation applies to the authority of a master; and we can see no reason why it should not be extended to that of civil rulers, supreme and subordinate. But it is to be carefully observed, that their exertions in this cause must be bounded and regulated by revelation itself, by the nature and design of their office, and by a due regard to the natural and civil rights of their subjects.
1. Magistrates must be regulated by supernatural revelation itself.
While it brings into view a system of supernatural doctrine, and religious institutions connected with it, it also makes provision for their ministerial dispensation, by the appointment of office-bearers, and a spiritual jurisdiction distinct from civil government, and not subordinate to it; and it extends this jurisdiction even to moral law, as incorporated with supernatural religion, and in its application for spiritual purposes. These are lines of demarcation fixed in Scripture by positive institution, over which civil rulers must not pass, even for the purpose of promoting the interests of religion: lines of demarcation which are clearly, as we have seen, recognized in the Westminster Confession. They must not usurp the prerogatives of Christ as the alone King and Head of the Church; they must not encroach upon the functions of the ministers of the word, or the spiritual jurisdiction of the rulers of the Church in the administration of the laws, government, and discipline of God's house. In many cases, these boundaries have not been duly observed in Protestant countries where the Church has been taken under the wing of a civil establishment. The supremacy claimed by the Pope over the Church has, in many instances, not been abolished, but only transferred to civil princes; and the Church has not received an establishment from the State as a distinct society, but has been secularized by being actually incorporated with it. Our Scottish Reformers carefully guarded against these abuses. The Reformed Church of Scotland would accept of no boon from the State at the expense of the royal prerogatives of Christ, her alone King and Head, or of her own spiritual liberties as his free and independent kingdom. We are carefully to distinguish here between the claims frequently made upon her by aspiring princes, and her conduct with reference to them. It was in the way of resisting their Erastian encroachments upon her spiritual liberties that many of her sons suffered bonds and banishment, and shed their blood in fields and on scaffolds. Nor did the State, in the purest times of Reformation, demand from the Church any such sacrifices, as appears from several acts, passed by the Estates in Parliament, to secure the Church in the peaceable enjoyment of her rights and liberties.
We grant that the Church admitted the co-operation of the State in promoting and securing the interests of the religious Reformation, but not by granting to it any jurisdiction in matters of supernatural religion. She requested and obtained from the State an approbation of her enactments respecting her doctrine, worship, discipline, and government; this, however, as we have seen, was never meant to confer upon them any additional authority as Church deeds, but to afford her legal protection in carrying these deeds into effect. She received the doctrine of the Westminster Confession respecting the right of the civil Magistrate to call Synods, &c. (Confession, chap. xxiii. sect. 3,) but she did so with explanations and limitations, as appears from her own act adopting that standard. She declared, that it was not to be understood to the prejudice of her intrinsic power, derived from Christ, to call her own assemblies; and that the authority assigned to the Magistrate to call Synods, independently of any other call, must be limited to kirks not settled or constituted in point of government. In the case supposed, we cannot see that the power assigned to the magistrate is inconsistent either with Scripture or reason. He has, without doubt, a power to summon any number of his subjects together for any purpose he may consider necessary to the benefit of the public; and in this case he only applies that power for an object of acknowledged utility to society at large; not by subverting ecclesiastical authority, but by employing the influence of his station, which he is bound to do as a Christian, for bringing that authority into operation when its exercise has been suspended. Christians in private life have a right, when the Church is in a disorganised state, and when her public functionaries are neglecting their duty, to employ the influence of their station, by petition and remonstrance, for this purpose; and why should not the Magistrate employ the influence of his station for the same end, provided he does not claim supremacy over the Church, or interfere with the spiritual jurisdiction of her functionaries when assembled?
But is it insisted that the Confession does not only allow the Magistrate to call Synods, but “to be present in them,” and “to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God;” and that this is to assign him a power in things sacred, or a control over the decisions of the Church? We do not see that there can be any reasonable objection to his being present in them. Is it not a principle among Presbyterians, that matters which relate to the general interests of religion should be discussed in open court, that as many as possible may have access to hear for their edification? There may, however, be other reasons, especially in an unsettled state of the Church, which may render the presence of the Magistrate not only warrantable, but necessary. It may be necessary that he should be present to redress their grievances, to preserve external order, and to protect them from external violence. But should it be insisted that he is to be present to preside in their Assembly, to overawe their deliberations, or to give validity to their proceedings; we have only to say, that the words of the Confession do not warrant such a construction, and that claims of this description are inconsistent with the well known principles of the Reformed Church of Scotland.
The last clause of the paragraph requires our more deliberate attention, as it in particular has been charged, with countenancing the power of the Magistrate in things sacred. He is “to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.” This clause, if fairly interpreted, must be taken in connection with the other parts of the Confession relating to Magistracy, which assert, in the most explicit manner, the sole headship of Christ over his Church, and that the Magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the word and sacraments, and also assign to Church courts the exclusive power of determining matters of faith, and cases of conscience. Now, after all this precision in limiting the management of sacred things to ecclesiastical persons, it is utterly unfair to interpret the clause under review as assigning to the Magistrate a power in these Courts, of sustaining himself a public judge of true or false religion, of dictating to them what decisions they should frame; or when passed, of bringing them under his review, and of altering or confirming them at his pleasure. We readily admit that the words imply a right of judging concerning the decision of Church courts, and of acting upon that judgment. It is not, however, a public ministerial judgment for determining matters of faith, or for regulating the profession or practice of the Church; for this is limited expressly by the Confession to ecclesiastical rulers. But it is a private judgment for regulating his own conduct in reference to the Church; and he has an undoubted right to exercise such a judgment, and to act upon it, both as a Christian and as a Magistrate.
He has such a right as a Christian. Every Christian has a right, in his station, “to provide that whatever is transacted in Church courts be according to the mind of God,” as revealed in his word. The word of God is the only rule of faith and practice; and to this standard Church members are to bring what they hear from the pulpit, as well as the decisions of the judicatories of the Church, and to exercise their judgment whether they are according to that unerring rule. Are not the Bereans commended for judging whether Paul's doctrine was agreeable to Scripture? “These were more noble than those of Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the Scriptures daily whether these things were so.”[Acts xvii. 11.] They have not only a right to judge, but “to provide that these decisions be according to the mind of God,” by employing every means competent to them for that end. If these decisions are, in their judgment, contrary to the word of God, they have a right to remonstrate with the court to have them repealed or amended; or if this fail, have they not a right to keep themselves free from the operation of such decisions, and in certain cases, to decline altogether the authority from which they proceed?
But civil rulers have also in their public character a right of private judgment, with regard to the decisions of Church courts, to regulate their public conduct towards the Church from which they proceed. It is well known that Church courts have often passed decrees eversive of the just rights of princes, and of the equitable laws of civil society, and consequently contrary to God’s word. But will any one deny that it is the duty of Magistrates, as the guardians of public law, to provide that nothing shall be done in these courts that tends to overturn the constitution or laws of the country? Besides, certain external obstructions may stand in the way of the Church carrying her decisions into effect, which can only be removed by civil authority; but those in civil authority would act most irrationally were they not to judge, before proceeding to remove these obstructions, whether her decisions are entitled to their interference for that purpose, from their being agreeable to God’s word. Moreover, the Confession supposes that it is the duty of the State to give the Church external support, and public countenance, in the faithful discharge of her duty; but if this be granted, and if it be admitted that it would be sinful in the State to give her its public countenance and support, in a course of defection; then it must also be admitted that civil rulers have a right to judge whether these decisions are Scriptural, for the regulation of their own conduct, or that they may know whether it is their duty to continue, or to withdraw their countenance and support from her, in carrying her decisions into execution. But all this does not imply a public judgment in things sacred; nor does it amount to a control over the Church, or an interference with her internal administration.
2. Their exertions must also be regulated by a due regard to the nature of religion, and the rights of conscience.
Matters purely religious lie between God and the soul, and are only to be promoted by means and instruments adapted to their nature. Though the civil Magistrate has, as we have seen, a deep interest in the advancement of supernatural religion; yet it does not follow from this, that he is to put forth and employ the civil arm for the direct purpose of its propagation. No such thing is taught in the explanatory standards of the Church of Scotland. The Confession teaches “that he hath authority, and it is his duty to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, &c.” But so far at least as supernatural religion is concerned, the Confession does not warrant him to employ civil pains for promoting it; nor is he to employ his civil authority for effecting the purposes specified, immediately, but only mediately, by calling forth and countenancing those spiritual means which God hath appointed for this end; one of the principal of which are Synods, or Ecclesiastical Assemblies; and accordingly it follows, “For the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call Synods.” This limitation must not be extended, however, to the more flagrant breaches even of the first table of the moral law, such as blasphemy, profane swearing, and even Sabbath-breaking. These crimes are opposed, not only to supernatural religion, but also to natural law, and sap the very foundations of public morals. They come, therefore, under the direct cognizance of civil rulers. In punishing these crimes, however, by civil pains, civil rulers are to do so with a sole relation to the ends of their office, or as offences against the State, and not as scandals against religious society. Still, in the faithful discharge of their duty in this respect, they contribute in no small degree to the advancement of pure and undefiled religion. The laws of the State for suppressing these and similar crimes, constitute one principal part of the Civil Reformation during the reforming periods, and they afford an example of the way in which the State may co-operate with the Church in promoting the public reformation of a country, without encroaching upon her jurisdiction.
We are aware that some will deny the right of the Magistrate to enforce the external observation of the Christian Sabbath, from the proportion of time, and the particular day of the week, set apart for that purpose, being of positive institution, and therefore not reducible to natural religion and law. But they would do well to remember that the law of nature does not only suggest that some part of our time should be wholly appropriated to the service of God, but also binds both rulers and subjects to bow to God’s authority as to the proportion of our time and the particular day of the week to be so observed, when made known by supernatural revelation. Moreover, no one who recognises the Divine authority of the fourth commandment can hesitate about this matter being cognizable by the Magistrate. His right is obviously recognised in the commandment itself. It does not only require superiors to refrain from working on the Sabbath, but also enjoins them to employ their authority in preventing their inferiors from worldly employments on that day. Parents are to restrain their children, and masters their servants; but as the restriction is to extend even to strangers, who are supposed to be under the control neither of parents nor masters, their conduct must fall under the cognizance of the magistrate of the place where they reside. “Thou shalt not do any work; thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter; thy man-servant nor thy maid-servant; nor thy cattle, nor the stranger within thy gates, &c.”
We said also, that the exertions of civil rulers for promoting the cause of religion, must be regulated by a proper regard to the rights of conscience. It is in this particular that the Reformation has been considered, even by some of its friends, as most deficient. In attempting a vindication of that cause, we solemnly disapprove of intolerant or compulsory measures with regard to matters purely religious. Seceders, in all their public papers, have done this. They have ever maintained, that no man should be exposed to trouble for his religious opinions or observances, provided his tenets and practices are not injurious to the established order, safety, and peace of society. But in treating of the Reformation, it is but justice to observe, that many of the charges brought against the Reformers on this head, especially during the period of the Solemn League, are either groundless, or greatly exaggerated. To set the matter in a true light, we must attend to the circumstances in which the Covenanters were placed, in the providence of God. It is well known that, at the period to which we refer, there was a combined attack made upon their civil rights and religious liberties, which led them almost necessarily to unite both in the means of defence. This accounts for the mixed nature of the Solemn League. It had for its grand objects the protection of the reformed religion in Scotland, and the reformation of religion in England and Ireland; but the free exercise of the reformed religion could not be obtained, owing to the opposition managed against it by a malignant party in the nation, headed by a despotic Court, except by vindicating their natural rights as men, and their civil rights as citizens. Accordingly, they engaged in that League to support one another in the defence both of their civil and religious liberties.
Moreover, those who opposed the religious reformation were not persons who conducted themselves peaceably. They held tenets, and acted upon them, whenever they found opportunity, which were eversive of the whole civil, as well as religious reformation in the country. This they continued to do even after the Reformation became decidedly the cause of the nation, by receiving in various forms the expression of the national will. The civil authorities, thus situated, could no longer protect the Reformation cause, or defend its friends, who were decidedly the majority of the nation, from open violence, but by opposing force to force. This accounts for the Reformers introducing a clause into the Solemn League, in which they engage to detect malignants, and to employ means to bring them to punishment. This does not seem to have been intended to compel any to adopt their religious opinions, but only as a measure necessary to secure national safety. This view goes far to justify the Parliament in excluding from places of power and trust, persons who refused to take the covenant. It is only in so far as this was their object that their conduct in enjoining, under civil pains, the taking of the covenant, can be defended.
3. The exertions of civil rulers in promoting the cause of revealed religion, should also be regulated by a regard to the civil rights of their subjects. A civil establishment of religion does not only imply legal protection, and public countenance, but also temporal support from the funds of the nation. This has been considered by some as an encroachment upon the civil rights of the subject; but we apprehend the principle itself is completely admissible, however often it may have been improperly applied. The right which the ministers of religion have to temporal emolument accords with the common sense of mankind. This is beautifully expressed in the sententious saying of our Lord, “The labourer is worthy of his hire.” Besides, reason also suggests that they should be supported by those who enjoy the benefit of their labours; but we have already seen, that nations, as such, as well as individuals, derive vast advantages from the ministrations of the public functionaries of supernatural religion; and we think it follows as a native inference, that these functionaries are entitled to national support, as the nature of the case may require. Moreover, it will, we apprehend, be admitted by all, that civil society cannot exist, nor property be protected without government; that government cannot be supported without funds; and that, on this account, it is no encroachment upon the rights of subjects to require them to give up with a part of their property for the support of a regular civil government. This is only to employ a part of their property for the protection of the whole. But we have already shown, that religion is necessary to secure the ends of civil government, and that of all other religions, the Christian religion is most conducive to promote these ends; and these things being granted, it must follow, that the funds of a nation are not diverted from their proper channel, when a part of them is applied for the purpose of instructing the nation in the knowledge of the doctrines and laws of Christianity.
We admit that the principle may be improperly applied, as when the funds of a nation are employed in support of a false religion, or a corrupt profession of the true religion. Also when a nation is greatly divided in religious sentiment. In this case, the civil establishment of a particular profession of Christianity has often been hurtful, instead of proving beneficial to the cause of religion. But these exceptions do not apply to the Scottish Establishment at the time of the Reformation. The temporal emoluments secured to the Church were not the boon of any one man, or small number of men, who had the power in their hands for the present, but a national grant. The great majority of the nation were of one religious persuasion, and that settlement was made by the Legislature with their hearty concurrence. We shall only add, that by what was applied for that purpose, no individual suffered in his outward estate. The revenues of the Romish Church had, by the Reformation, become an unappropriated fund, to which no individual could prefer a righteous claim. These had long been wasted in the support of a false religion, and so far as they were then devoted to the support of the true, they were like the merchandise of Tyre, consecrated to the Lord of the whole earth.
We shall now endeavour to bring the whole of the above reasoning into one view, in a few general propositions, to which we humbly conceive, all must accede who wish to appear as consistent witnesses for the Covenanted Reformation.
Prop. 1. That the Church of Christ is a free, spiritual, and independent kingdom; distinct from the kingdoms of men, in her origin, her offices, her laws of worship, discipline, and government, her judicatories, and special ends; and that she possesses from Christ, her alone King and Head, an intrinsic power for all the purposes of her administration, independent of, and not subordinate to, the powers of this world.
Prop. 2. That nations, as such, being the subjects of God’s moral government, and under his law, natural or revealed, they must be bound to acknowledge God’s supremacy, and their dependence, by certain acts of moral worship. But if this be admitted, what regards natural religion, at least, must be a primary object of national legislation. Every nation must be bound, in the very act of their organization, to recognize the being and universal supremacy of God, to make provision for the legal protection and support of his worship, to take care that their civil code be framed agreeably to his will, as far as known; and that the whole of their administration be rendered subservient to his glory.
Prop. 3. Though civil government has its foundation in natural law, yet that same law binds bodies corporate, as well as individuals, to acknowledge God's authority, by embracing whatever he may be pleased to reveal as a rule of faith and manners. But if this be admitted, it will follow, that in every country where supernatural religion is made known, the nation, as such, is bound to embrace it; to remove whatever in their civil constitution may be found incompatible with it; to regulate the whole of their civil code, so as to prove subservient to its interests; and to give it their public countenance and support. But if it be the duty of a nation to legislate in favour of supernatural religion, it must be the duty of the Magistrate, in whom the executive power is vested, to exercise that power, in carrying the laws, thus framed, into execution.
Prop. 4. All this is to be done without confounding the Church with the State; for the same law which binds nations to embrace supernatural religion, obliges them to recognize in supernatural Revelation itself, the charter of the Church, as a free, distinct, and independent kingdom: and in the whole of their legislative enactments, and civil administration, to hold sacred the rights, liberties, and independence, secured to her in the sacred volume, by the positive appointment of God.
Prop. 5. Though the Church and the State are in their nature distinct, and though they should never be confounded in administration, yet they are capable of friendly relations. It will be admitted, that kingdoms among men, which are independent, may assist and support each other; and though the one may not make laws for the other, yet they may each make laws that tend to their mutual advantage. But why prohibit similar acts of kindness between the Church and the State? Though distinct, they are both ordinances of God, “the powers that be are ordained of God;” and no two ordinances of God can be opposite to, or eversive of each other. The Church is set up in the world for its religious and moral improvement; and if it be the duty of nations as such, and their rulers, to take advantage of the light emitted by her, not only to direct them in what relates to their spiritual concerns, but also to aid them in the administration of justice, and in pursuing the other ends of civil government; it must be the duty of the State, in return, to afford the Church public countenance, legal protection, and, if circumstances require it, temporal support.
Prop. 6. Church and State are not only capable of friendly relations, but of co-operation in the advancement of objects common to both. It will be allowed by all, that the suppression of vice, and the advancement of public morals, are common objects; and we have seen that the propagation of supernatural religion, though not an end of the office of civil rulers, is a means eminently conducive to that end, as it is the best security for public morals. But if all this be granted, who will say that it is unwarrantable, or improper, for the State to co-operate with the Church, each of them acting its own proper part, and in its own proper sphere, for bringing about public reformation in religion and manners; or for giving permanency and stability to such a reformation when actually effected?
Prop. 7. As an oath is an ordinance of natural as well as of revealed religion, and as confederation for securing an object of common concern is a dictate of natural law; and as neither of them, therefore, is exclusively an ecclesiastical ordinance; one would suppose that it is competent for these two independent kingdoms to confederate about this grand object of national reformation, and even to pledge themselves to God, and one another, for its maintenance, with all the solemnity of an oath. Moreover, upon the supposition that the civil authorities of a country are themselves church members, there must be the greatest propriety in the bond of confederation being a church bond, framed and administered by her public functionaries; in which all the confederates engage to exert the influence of their several stations and relations in life, civil as well as religious, for promoting the ends of reformation.
Prop. 8. All this ought to be done, and may be done, without infringing upon the just rights of conscience. If the State is to give positive countenance and external support to religion at all, it ought to be to the true religion; for it must be sinful in men individually or collectively, to give even a positive toleration to a false religion. All that can be reasonably pleaded for with regard to a false system of religion, is a mere negative toleration; or to leave its votaries unmolested in the exercise of it, provided they propagate no tenets, and pursue no practices, injurious to the order and peace of public society.
Prop. 9. It remains to be proved by those who censure the Reformation, on the ground of its supposed infringements on the liberty of conscience, that the general measures pursued by our Reformers were contrary to the doctrine laid down in the last proposition. It has never been proved that the penal statutes of that time were intended to distress conscientious dissenters, who conducted themselves peaceably. Their obvious design was to restrain Popish and Prelatic factions, composed of men who held tenets, and acted upon them whenever they found opportunity, which were incompatible with public safety, and tended to subvert both the civil constitution and religious reformation of the country.
These propositions, we apprehend, contain the general principles on which the work of Reformation in this country was carried on. That in some instances there might be a deviation from them, will not be denied. But as it would be folly to assert that the agency of men in that great work was faultless, so it is extremely uncandid and ungenerous, to condemn the whole Reformation cause, on account of the weaknesses, or even the mistakes, of the instruments employed in promoting it. While we consider ourselves bound to declare our adherence to the Reformation as a great work of God, we also consider that gratitude requires that we should give an honourable testimony to the intelligence, piety, and zeal, of the Reformers, as the instruments to whom we owe, under Providence, all that is dear to us, as men and as Christians. “Seceders,” however, “never pledged themselves by an approbation of all the acts and proceedings either of the State, or of the Church, during that period. Their approbation of them was limited. So far as it can be shown that any acts of the Church encroached on due Christian liberty, or that any acts of the State subjected good and peaceable subjects to punishment for matters purely religious, or imposed on them hardships which did not necessarily result from measures requisite to promote the public good, and preserve the national safety; the principles of Seceders do not permit them to justify the conduct of the Covenanters.”
We have dwelt longer on this subject than we at first intended, from the conviction which we have of its importance. The doctrine of the public formularies of the Reformed Church of Scotland on this head, instead of countenancing an improper connection between Church and State, was evidently intended by our ancestors to guard against it. They were decidedly opposed to secularized Churches, or any civil establishment of religion which did not leave the Church in full possession of her rights and liberties, as a free and independent kingdom; but they had no idea of laying an inhibition upon men, either in their aggregate, or individual capacity, from employing the influence of their station for promoting the interests of the kingdom of Christ. That kingdom is not of the world, but so long as the subjects of it are in an embodied state, and not pure spirits, they must have some intercourse with civil society, as such, even in prosecuting the ends of their religious vocation. Those who exclaim loudest against civil establishments, are every day taking advantage of the civil laws of their country in matters more or less connected with religion. This shows the necessity of the discussion of the question, how far the laws of a State may be employed about ecclesiastical persons, and religious matters, without infringing upon the rights, liberties, and independence of the kingdom of Christ.
The public countenance and support pleaded for, from the State to the Church, are contended for not wholly, nor even principally, on her own account. Enough has been said to show that her existence does not depend on any earthly power, but upon her relation to Christ, her alone King and Head. Neither is she indebted to the countenance of the great and noble of the world, for the success of her administrations. The work in which she is engaged, depends for its success, not on human might, or human power, but upon God's Spirit. Her success was never greater than in the first ages of Christianity, when the whole civil power of Rome was armed against her. The principal advantage arising from such a friendly connection between the Church and the State, accrues to nations themselves, and their governments. By framing their constitution and administration in subserviency to the interests of revealed religion, and extending their public countenance and protection to her ministers, they most effectually secure their own national prosperity, stability, and safety. By these means they furnish the commonwealth with the best security against public crimes, the strongest bond of social union, and the principal source of justice, fidelity, humanity, and the other virtues, which adorn and give stability to nations.—Righteousness exalteth a nation; but as we have seen already, the doctrines and institutions of supernatural religion are necessary effectually to secure public morals. It is the grace of God which teaches men to live soberly and righteously; but these are essential to social order; and social order being once secured, peace, the other grand end of civil government, will follow in its train; for “the fruit of righteousness” will be found to be “peace,” and “the effect of righteousness, quietness, and assurance for ever.”—But to deny to nations and their rulers all right to employ their influence for the advancement of revealed religion, is the direct way to demoralize a country, and to bring it back to the darkness and barbarity of heathenism. Finally, the question is connected with public national safety. God's wrath has been upon all nations, and his fury upon all their armies; but it were easy to show that the contempt of revealed religion, and the persecution of the Church with which it is identified, have, in every country where supernatural revelation has been enjoyed, filled up the cup of national iniquity, and brought on national ruin. And in this cause, none can be neutral. If the potentates of the earth do not help the woman, they must be against her. They should therefore be taught by the experience of ages, “to kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and they perish from the way.”
We considered the foregoing narrative and remarks, as necessary to set before our readers the Reformation Cause; a cause which has been transmitted to us by the blood of our fathers, and to which, under Providence, we owe all that is dear to us as men and as Christians. We now proceed briefly to contemplate it as a great work of God, and as embodied in the public profession of the Church, and ratified by her vows.
That it is to be viewed as a great work of God, appears from the many and great obstacles it had to surmount, the means by which it was accomplished, and the extent to which it was carried. It had to surmount obstacles of no ordinary kind. Popery had not only the whole fraternity of the Romish Clergy, armed with the thunders of the Vatican, on its side; but it was supported by the whole influence of the civil power of the nation. It was a system established by law, confirmed by custom, and deeply rooted in the corrupt hearts of men. What short of Omnipotence could overcome such a mighty host of opposition? But to see the agency of God in this work, we must attend to the means by which it was effected. The instruments raised up by Providence for this purpose were not, in general, the noble and the mighty of the earth; neither were the means they employed carnal but spiritual. The countenance which the Reformation received ultimately from the civil powers, in this as well as other countries, was the effect, not the cause, of its irresistible progress. We shall only add the extent to which it was carried, not only as it respected the external order of the house of God, but the religious and moral conduct of a great proportion of the nation. Zion's converts were numerous, the power of religion was deeply felt by them, and eminently exemplified in their lives, in the most trying circumstances. Surely the reforming periods in this country were the years of the right hand of the Most High, which we ourselves should not only remember, but which we should also impress upon the memory of our children, that they may speak of them to the generation following.
We now proceed to contemplate it as embodied in the public profession of the Church, and ratified by her vows to the Most High God.
In this view of it, our attention is turned principally to what have been called the Reformation Standards. These, it must be carefully observed, were received and acted upon by the Church, not as the rule of her faith and practice, but as the form of her public profession; not as supreme, but only as subordinate and explanatory Standards. The Church of Scotland tenaciously held the grand doctrine of Protestantism, “That the Scriptures, contained in the Old and New Testaments, are the Word of God, and the only rule of faith and practice.” But as it was her bounden duty to make a public profession of her faith, so she found it necessary, for the more effectual detection and confutation of error, and elucidation of truth, for preserving that uniformity of sentiment among her own members, without which there can be no comfortable or profitable religious fellowship, for the information of foreign Churches, and especially for the transmitting of her religious attainments to succeeding generations, to commit that profession to writing, to give it her judicial sanction, and to ratify it by her solemn vows to God. The public profession of the Church of Scotland, during the first reforming period, was summed up in her first Confession of Faith, her Books of Discipline, and the National Covenant.
The National Covenant had not only the form of a vow to adhere to the reformed religion, but of a pointed testimony against the errors and delusions of Popery. To exclude this deed from our terms of religious fellowship is, therefore, to abandon one principal part of the public profession of the Reformed Church of Scotland; and that too when Popery, the evil abjured and testified against in that Covenant, is greatly on the increase in this country.
The public profession of that Church was not changed, but only enlarged, when she adopted the Westminster Standards. Her former explanatory deeds were not formally laid aside; besides, all that was truly valuable in them was comprehended in the Westminster Standards. These standards, as received and adopted by the Church of Scotland, comprehended the Confession of Faith, the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, the form of Presbyterial Church Government, and the Directory for the worship of God. This is the profession which was espoused and witnessed for by the original Seceders. They did not take their stand on the state of religion at the Revolution settlement; but appeared for the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of the Church of Scotland, laid down in her formularies, as these had been received in her purest times.
Moreover, our fathers in the Secession adhered to these standards as Covenanted Standards. They had been received as such, as we have already seen, by the Reformed Church of Scotland. And as Seceders were identified with that Church in religious privileges and in solemn profession, so they avowed themselves identified with her in the federal engagements which she had come under, and bound by them to hold fast that profession; to transmit it pure and entire to their children; and to promote the cause of uniformity throughout the three kingdoms. This appears from the title of the Judicial Testimony emitted by the Associate Presbytery. It is a Testimony for the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of the Church of Scotland, according to the Word of God, the Confession of Faith, the National Covenant of Scotland, and the Solemn League and Covenant of the three nations.
BEFORE entering upon the doctrine of covenant obligation, it may be proper to turn the attention of our readers to religious covenanting itself, and the modifications of which it is susceptible from its moral nature.
First, Religious covenanting is either personal or social. Personal covenanting is a transaction between God and the believer; in which the believer, taking hold of God’s covenant of promise, ratified in the blood of his Son, and tendered to him in the Gospel, engages in the strength of promised grace to walk with God in all the ways of new obedience. Social covenanting is a transaction, not only between God and a number of professed believers, but also a deed of confederation among themselves; in which, professing their faith in God, through Christ, they do not only promise and vow to God to walk in his ways, but also pledge themselves to one another, to aid and support one another in his way and work.
Secondly, Public religious covenanting admits of great variety with respect to the matter and object of it, and the manner in which the engagement may be entered into. According to the general definition already given of it, it may embrace the whole will of God revealed in his word, as embodied in the religious profession of the covenanting society; and it may have for its object, the maintenance of the whole of that profession, and its transmission in purity to future ages. Such was the covenanting of the Israelites at Sinai, and in the plains of Moab.”[Exod. xix. 7, 8; Deut. xxix. 10–12.] Again, while it reduplicates on the whole of God's revealed will, it may have for its more immediate objects the support of some particular part of Divine truth, or commanded duty, or the reformation of certain abuses which may have crept into the worship, discipline, or government of God’s house, and the restoration of the service of the sanctuary to a state of conformity to the pattern laid down in his word. Of this description was the covenanting in the days of Nehemiah.[Neh. x. 1–39.] It may even be limited to one particular duty, as was the case in the covenant between Zedekiah and his people, to set at liberty their Hebrew servants, as enjoined by the law of Moses.[Jer. xxxiv. 8.] Moreover, the object proposed in the covenant may be the general reformation of a nation or nations, after great defection from the cause of God. Of this description was the covenanting in the days of Hezekiah and Josiah, kings of Judah.[2 Chron. xxix.; xxxiv. 31.] This was also the object proposed, first by the National Covenant of Scotland, and afterwards by the Solemn League and Covenant of the three nations.
We also said that it admits of great variety as to the manner of entering into the engagement. We have seen already that a public religious covenant involves in it, in general, two things; a vow to God, and an engagement of the covenanters to one another, to aid and support one another in carrying into effect the object of that vow. But it may not be necessary on all occasions to bring both forward with the same prominency. The duty may be performed in the way of the vow to God being explicit, and the engagement of the covenanters to one another only implicit. This was the case with respect to the covenanting at Sinai. The vow to God was explicit, while the engagement of the covenanters to one another was only implied in the social nature of the vow. All the congregation said once, a second, yea, a third time, “All the words that the Lord hath spoken, we will do.” It may also be performed in the way of the vow to God being only implicit, and the engagement of the covenanters to one another explicit. This was the case with regard to the covenant entered into between Zedekiah and his people, already referred to. It involved in it an implicit vow to God, so far as it reduplicated upon God’s covenant with their ancestors at Sinai, and recognised the obligation of that transaction; but the engagement itself was formally and explicitly an engagement between the king and the people. This does not say that both may not be explicit, or that the bond may not contain an explicit and formal vow to God, and an explicit engagement to one another, to aid and support one another, in carrying it into effect. No; both were brought prominently into view in the covenanting in Nehemiah's time. These remarks serve to vindicate the form of the British Covenants, and in particular, that of the Solemn League. A league it was, between nation and nation, churches and churches, rulers and subjects; but this did not destroy even its form as a religious covenant, since it did not only include a vow to God, but its main object, even considered as a league, was the advancement of a religious reformation. We shall only add, that public religious covenanting may be performed with, or without an oath. The covenanting at Sinai was simply a vow; in the plains of Moab the engagement was confirmed by oath; “Ye stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God, &c. That thou shouldst enter into covenant with the Lord thy God, and into his oath, which the Lord thy God maketh with thee this day.”[Deut. xxix. 10–12.]
Thirdly, Religious covenanting, whether personal or social, is in its nature moral, and must therefore be a duty under every religious dispensation. It is one of those duties which have their foundation in the law of nature, and which spring from God's supremacy and man's dependence, or the moral relations which necessarily subsist between God and his rational creatures. But these duties are of permanent obligation. It has long been thought a convenient way of getting rid of certain religious duties, to arrange them under the head of Jewish peculiarities: but if they are in their own nature moral, it will not be sustained before the tribunal of God, whose judgment is always according to truth. “Think not (says Jesus) that I am come to destroy the law or the prophets; I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, till heaven and earth pass, one jot, or one tittle, shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.”[Matt. v. 17, 18.] Religious vowing is a dictate of the law of nature. Hence, wherever we find the belief of a God, we also find vowing practised, as an expression of man's obligation to, and dependence on him. It runs through the whole of the religion of the Heathen, who have only the light of nature, in modern as well as ancient times. However different their views have been of the Deity, in this they have all agreed, that He is to be honoured with the vows of his rational creatures. The duty is still more clearly taught in the written law. The first precept of the moral law requires us to know, and acknowledge God to be the only true God, and our God, and to avow our allegiance to him with all possible solemnity. We are capable of vowing allegiance to an earthly sovereign with the solemnity of an oath; and will any one affirm that the Most High God is to be served with less solemnity than his creatures? The second precept of the law requires us to embody in our vows the whole of God’s revealed will, as it respects the laws and ordinances of his worship. To avouch the Lord to be our God, “and to walk in his ways, and to keep his statutes, and his commandments, and to hearken unto his voice.”[Deut. xxvi. 17.] And the third points out more explicitly, how our profession and vows are to be consolidated. It teaches us, for the purpose of promoting steadfastness and mutual confidence in prosecuting the ends of our engagements, to “swear the Lord liveth in truth, in righteousness, and in judgment.”[Jer. iv. 2.] Confederation for the support of a public cause, is no less a dictate of natural law. But since vowing to God is in its nature moral, and since confederation in support of the cause of religion is a dictate of reason, as well as revelation, social religious covenanting must be a duty under every religious dispensation.
Fourthly, These federal deeds are not only to have a specific end which the covenanters pledge themselves to pursue, but they are also to embrace the means which they pledge themselves to employ in order to bring about that end. If the end proposed be the advancement or the reformation of religion, the covenant is, without doubt, a religious covenant, though all the means proposed for carrying it into effect may not be purely religious. It is sufficient that they be moral, or such as are warranted by the second table of the Divine law. There can certainly be no impropriety in employing any moral means, for bringing about a religious object, which are in their nature adapted for that purpose; or of making morality subservient to the cause of religion. This remark is necessary to vindicate the Solemn League from the charge brought against it on account of its mixed nature, as if it were a mere political transaction. That the covenanters engaged to aid and support one another in the vindication of their natural rights as men, and of their civil rights as citizens; and that the Solemn League contained clauses expressly relating to the political state and interests of the three kingdoms, is readily admitted; but this was a subordinate object, and a means leading to the principal end proposed in the covenant. The main ends were the preservation of the reformed religion in Scotland, and the reformation of religion in England and Ireland; but in their circumstances, the reformed religion could neither be publicly professed, nor maintained, in its purity and simplicity, but in the way of vindicating their natural and civil rights. Moreover, this was in itself moral, a duty the covenanters owed to one another, and there can be no impropriety in embodying in a religious covenant, what God has enjoined in his law. “This commandment we have of him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.”
Fifthly, Religious covenanting, from its nature, is susceptible of different modifications, not only as to the manner of its performance, but also with respect to the parties who may warrantably engage in it. In this respect it differs from mere positive institutions, such as Baptism and the Lord's Supper. These have not their foundation in the law of nature, but are peculiar to supernatural religion, and are on this account exclusively church ordinances. They can be dispensed warrantably only by ecclesiastical office-bearers, and to church members. Moreover, as they are purely ecclesiastical ordinances, they can be dispensed, consistently with their nature and design, only in the assemblies of the church, when met for public worship. But religious covenanting, from its moral nature, is susceptible of greater latitude, since the moral law is not confined to men as members of the Church, but extends to them, in their various capacities, as subjects of the moral government of God.
That this, as well as every other moral duty, can be performed acceptably by fallen men only in the faith of supernatural revelation, and that it, as well as every other act of moral worship, is to be embodied in the worship of the Church, will be readily admitted. What we insist for is, that since it is not exclusively an ecclesiastical ordinance, it may be performed by Christians, in certain circumstances, though not acting purely in an ecclesiastical capacity. Religious covenanting is of the same class of duties as prayer and praise; but no person will insist, that these can be performed acceptably only as acts of ecclesiastical worship, or by persons acting in the specific character of church members. The prayers and alms of Cornelius were approved of God, before Peter was sent to instruct him in the way of God more perfectly; but prior to that period, he was not a visible member of the Christian Church. Personal covenanting is not an act of ecclesiastical worship, but it is a duty, as well as social covenanting. Husband and wife, and parents and children, are not, as such, ecclesiastical characters, but no one will affirm that it would be improper in them to confederate, by entering into a social vow, to promote family reformation. We may suppose it possible for a number of families in a remote part of the world, where the Church was never planted, to have arrived at the knowledge of supernatural religion by means of the written word, and to have believed it, and professed it, so far as practicable in their circumstances. But will any one say, that it would be improper in them to confederate, by entering into a social vow, to adopt measures for promoting their mutual edification, and to procure a gospel ministry, that they might enjoy all the ordinances of religion? But in the case supposed, the confederation would not be a deed of an organized church, nor could the covenanters be said to act in the character of visible church members. Nations are families on a larger scale; and where is the inconsistency of nations, composed of professed Christians, though they may not all, for the present, be under the same ecclesiastical banner, and though some of them should not be in actual fellowship with any particular church, entering into a bond about which they are all agreed, to stand by one another in defence of their common liberties, to adopt measures for promoting union in religious profession among themselves, and with other nations, and to exert their combined influence to promote a general reformation of religion and manners? Such a bond was the Solemn League. Though it had not all the formality of a church bond, yet it was a bond approved of, and entered into, not only by the Presbyterians in general throughout the three kingdoms, but by a great number of persons who were in ecclesiastical fellowship with the Independents, and also by many who, though they disapproved of the hierarchy, and other corruptions of the Church of England, had hitherto been of that communion.
It will be carefully observed, that these remarks are not to be understood to the prejudice of ecclesiastical covenanting. This, as well as other duties which have their foundation in natural religion, is to be embodied in the worship of the Church, and so far as practicable, she is to take the lead, even in national covenanting, as she did in the case of the National Covenant of Scotland. It was not only a national, but an ecclesiastical deed, being framed, sanctioned, and administered, by the public functionaries of the National Church. Moreover, it is the duty of the Church, whether the public authorities and the body of the nation in which she is situated, will concur with her or not, to covenant, not merely implicitly, as every particular Church must do in its very organization, but also explicitly, as the Secession Church has done, for the maintenance of her peculiar profession. Zion is to confess her God, in the most solemn manner: “Vow and pay unto the Lord your God. Let all that be round about him bring presents to him who ought to be feared.”[Psalm lxxvi. 11.] In this case, the bond should be purely ecclesiastical, not only by its being framed by the supreme judicatory of the Church, and administered by her public functionaries, but also by its being entered into solely by persons in her religious fellowship.
We shall only add here, that since public religious covenanting is not, from its moral nature, restricted to society in any particular form or extent; so the changes that may take place in a covenanted society, from the lapse of time, or otherwise, will not warrant a suspension of the practice of the duty.
Supposing a nation, or a number of nations, to have entered into covenant for promoting a religious reformation, or securing it when attained; and supposing that afterwards, one or more of these nations, or the great majority of the whole, should have deserted the covenanted cause, and broken through their solemn engagements, still it would be the duty of the minority, however small, to renew their engagements, not only for promoting their own steadfastness, but as a means of reviving the work in the nation, or nations, which originally engaged in it. All this, we apprehend, is warranted by the approved example of the people of God in ancient times. The Israelites were a covenanted people, and the cause in support of which they covenanted was a permanent cause—the cause of revealed religion. At Sinai, and in the plains of Moab, their covenanting was strictly and properly a national deed, as the whole people of Israel engaged in it. In process of time, the great majority of them apostatized from the true religion, and Judah alone clave to the true God, and was faithful with the saints. This tribe, though but a small proportion of the original nation of Israel which covenanted with God at Sinai, did not consider it incompetent for them to renew the engagement entered into by their forefathers, in a bond suited to their circumstances. This, we find, was done in the days of Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Josiah, kings of Judah. Moreover, they judged this competent to them, not only when they had a king of their own nation, who co-operated with them in the work; but also when under a foreign yoke, and reduced to a small number, as appears from the covenanting of the captives on their return from Babylon, “Behold, we are servants this day; and for the land which thou gavest to our fathers, to eat the fruit thereof, and the good thereof, behold, we are servants in it: And it yieldeth much increase unto the kings whom thou hast set over us because of our sins: also they have dominion over our bodies, and over our cattle, at their pleasure; and we are in great distress. And because of all this we make a sure covenant, and write it; and our princes, Levites, and priests, seal unto it.”[Neh. ix. 36, 37, 38.] The intelligent reader will easily be able to apply these observations to the present circumstances of the friends of the covenanted reformation in this country. They are now left in the minority, and can no longer covenant nationally, but they are not, on that account, at liberty to abandon the covenanted cause of their country, or cease to practise covenanting, in a way suited to their circumstances, as a means for reviving the cause in these lands once devoted to God.
We considered the foregoing observations, on the morality of public religious covenanting, necessary as an introduction to the principal design of this treatise; and we are now to enter upon the defence of the perpetual obligation of social vows made for promoting and maintaining reformation, with a particular reference to the federal deeds of our ancestors. Before we proceed, it may be proper to show how groundless the aspersions are which have been thrown out against the friends of this doctrine, as if they set it up in opposition to the obligation of the Divine law, or substituted it in its room. This we propose to do by a few general remarks upon the obligation of vows, and promissory oaths. These remarks will show, that the obligation pleaded for, though it arises immediately from the vow or promissory oath, so far from being opposed to, or substituted in the room of the Divine law, is recognised by it, and must ultimately be resolved into it.
First, We apprehend it will be admitted, that a person may warrantably bring himself under obligation by a vow, or promissory oath, to things formerly indifferent, or which were previously in his own power. In this case, though the authority of God is not immediately interposed in the way of requiring him to vow, yet the obligation of his vow is strictly moral, since the law of God admits of such voluntary engagements, and when they are entered into, requires us to fulfil them. “If a man vow a vow unto the Lord, or swear an oath, to bind his soul with a bond, he shall not break his word.”[Numb. xxx. 2.] “But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained was it not thine own? and after it was sold was it not in thine own power? Why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.”[Acts v. 3, 4.]
Secondly, It will also be granted, we presume, that a person may bring himself under new obligations, even to a necessary duty, by his promise and oath. In this case, it is not pleaded that the original obligation he was under from the precept, which defined and enforced the duty, is increased, much less dissolved; for every obligation arising necessarily from the law is absolutely perfect. But what we assert is, that he brings himself under additional obligations to the same duty, upon new grounds, by his promise and oath; and these obligations are strictly moral, since recognised by the Divine law. Formerly, he was necessarily bound to observe the duty by the precept enjoining it; now, having made the same duty the matter of a promise and oath, the law requires him on these grounds also to observe it, since it recognises the obligation of his oath and promise. Promises and oaths bind the soul, not by adding to the obligation of God’s law, but by bringing us into new relations to the law with reference to the same duty. This will be best illustrated by an example. By the fifth commandment, which at once prescribes the duty, and lays us under obligation to perform it, a subject is bound to obey his lawful sovereign, whether he promise and swear allegiance to him or not. But having promised allegiance, and ratified his promise by his oath, he is under additional obligation, by virtue of his promise, to the same duty from the ninth commandment, which requires us to maintain truth between man and man; and by virtue of his oath, from the third commandment, which requires us not to take God’s name in vain. And should he, after all, turn out a rebel, his guilt must be tripled, since he is not only guilty, in that one act, of a breach of the fifth commandment, which forbids disobedience to superiors, but also of the ninth, which forbids lying, and of the third, which forbids perjury. This remark also serves to show the vast importance of the doctrine which we are about to illustrate, as a practical question. The same reasoning applies to society; and if it be found that the British covenants entered into for promoting reformation are still binding upon all ranks in these lands, their guilt, in consequence of their defection from former attainments, is tripled, as it is not only a breach of the laws of religion in general, but of their solemn engagements to God and to one another.
It is not, however, pled, that every federal transaction entered into by society is of perpetual obligation. The stipulations of a covenant may be fulfilled in a year, yea in a week, and that moment the obligation ceases. But what we assert is, that those transactions which have a permanent object must be binding on the society as long as it exists. This we are to prove by the following propositions.
Prop. 1. Society, whether civil or ecclesiastical, when regularly constituted, is, equally with individual persons, subject to the Divine government. Man was formed for society. When the Lord God formed Adam, he said, it is not good that man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him. The first social state of man was that of a family, of which Adam was the head, and Eve and their offspring the members. When the human race was greatly multiplied, it became necessary to subdivide it into tribes or nations. Hence the origin of political society. The erection of a Church upon the plan prescribed in supernatural revelation, struck out a new order in social life. Society, in all its different modifications, is necessarily under the Divine law, natural or revealed. This appears from God’s supremacy and our dependence; and from the moral law, as engraven on the heart, as well as revealed in the Bible. Society is dependent on God for being and happiness; but dependence infers obligation to the being on whom we depend. Besides, the moral law requires social duties, and condemns social and public crimes. This being the case, the moment society is formed, the moral law binds the society as such, and the several orders of which it is composed, to all the duties which they owe in the social state to God, and to one another, and this obligation is permanent.
Prop. 2. Organized society, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is recognised by God as a permanent body, and possessed of a continued moral identity, so long as it exists; and is dealt with by Him accordingly, both in a way of mercy and of judgment. That God recognises society regularly constituted as one body-politic, unaffected by the lapse of time, or the change of individuals, needs no proof to those who are acquainted with their Bible. The Jews in Jeremiah's time are spoken of as the same society which came up out of Egypt. “Go and cry in the ears of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the Lord, I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.”[Jer. ii. 2.] This identity, or sameness, was not peculiar to that people. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Tyrians, and Babylonians, are all mentioned in Scripture as permanent bodies, or possessed of a continued identity from their first organization, till the dissolution of their social state. The same view is taken of nations and churches, under the present dispensation. The two witnesses, the representatives of the true Church under the reign of Antichrist, are represented as the same throughout the long period of their prophesying; and the Antichristian body itself, as but one in its rise, general apostacy, and consequent ruin, though subsisting for the space of twelve hundred and sixty years. This identity is not an identity in name merely, but in moral obligation to God's law, natural or revealed. That the moral law is of permanent obligation upon the individual person, as long as he lives, will be admitted by all who allow that man is a responsible being. He undergoes many physical changes from youth to manhood, and from manhood to old age, but his moral identity is still the same. The moral identity of a body politic as existing through different ages, is as real as the moral identity of the individual through the whole of his life. These moral obligations which it necessarily came under, upon its first formation, must therefore continue while it exists, unaffected by the lapse of time, or the change of individuals. Were this not the case, society, as such, could not be under obligation in any respect, for a week, yea, not for a day; for not a day passes, without a change of individuals in a society of any extent.
But this will be more obvious if we consider, First, That society, as such, is represented in Scripture as accumulating guilt from age to age. Thus, the Amorites are represented as cut off from being a nation in the days of Joshua, for a cup of iniquity which was filling up so early as the days of Abraham.[Gen. xv. 16.] In like manner, Jerusalem was destroyed, the Jews dispersed, and cast out of the pale of the Church, for crimes which had been accumulating from the time of their coming out of Egypt. Is not this the meaning of the awful warning? “Wherefore ye be witnesses unto yourselves, that ye are the children of them that killed the prophets. Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers.”[Matt. xxiii. 31, 32.] But, were organised society not one in respect of moral obligation, throughout the different ages of its existence, it could not be charged with guilt accumulated from age to age; for where there is no law there is no transgression. Secondly, The moral identity pleaded for, also appears from God’s punishing posterity in the social state, even at a distant age, for crimes committed by their ancestors. Descending guilt, doubtless, supposes that those upon whom it descends, were identified in law, in the social state, with their progenitors by whom it was contracted. Thus, the Amalekites, to the latest posterity, were identified in national crime, and in national punishment, with that generation which made war with Israel, when they came up out of Egypt. This appears from God's oath, that he would have war with Amalek, from generation to generation.[Exod. xvii. 8, 16.] The Edomites also are identified in the days of Amos, not only with the first founder of their nation, but also with all the intervening generations till that time, in the cruel opposition managed against Jacob and his descendants; and threatened with punishment accordingly. “Thus saith the Lord, for three transgressions of Edom, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because he did pursue his brother with the sword, and did cast off all pity, and his anger did tear perpetually, and he kept his wrath for ever. But I will send a fire upon Teman, which shall devour the palaces of Bozrah.”[Amos i. 11, 12.] The destruction of the Jewish Church and Commonwealth by Titus, was not merely on account of the wickedness of that generation on which the calamity fell, but for public crimes which had been accumulating among God's professing people from the earliest period of their history. Unless this be admitted, how are we to explain our Lord's declaration, “Wherefore, behold, I send unto you prophets, and wise men, and scribes; and some of them ye shall kill and crucify, and some of them ye shall scourge in your synagogues, and persecute them from city to city: That upon you may come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from the blood of righteous Abel, unto the blood of Zacharias, son of Barachias, whom ye slew between the temple and the altar. Verily I say unto you, all these things shall come upon this generation.”[Matt. xxiii. 34–36.] Can it be doubted for a moment, that the last plagues to be poured out on the Antichristian state, have a retrospect to all the innocent blood shed by that unrelenting enemy of Christ, and his followers, from the commencement of its reign? Is not this plainly implied in the song of the Church. “And after these things, I heard a great voice of much people in heaven, saying, Alleluia, salvation, and glory, and honour, and power, unto the Lord our God. For true and righteous are his judgments, for he hath judged the great whore, which did corrupt the earth with her fornications, and hath avenged the blood of his servants at her hand?”[Rev. xix. 1, 2.]
We shall only add, that it is upon this principle alone, that we can explain the doctrine taught in the second commandment, or reconcile it with other passages of Scripture. We are elsewhere taught, that “The soul that sinneth, it shall die: the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son.”[Ezek. xviii. 20.] But in that commandment we are told, that the Lord our God is a jealous God, visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate him.[Exod. xx. 5.] These two passages can be reconciled only by admitting the continual identity of bodies politic, which we have been attempting to establish. Dealing with men in their individual character, he punishes their personal sins with personal judgments in this life, and that which is to come. But, in the exercise of his retributive justice, he visits public and social crimes with public judgments. And as society, regularly constituted, is one, in a moral respect, throughout the several ages in which it exists, so the crimes committed by the fathers in the social state, are punished in the persons of the children, even unto the third and fourth generation. Nor does it alter the matter, that this visitation comes only upon the generation that hates God; for a righteous God would never punish even a wicked generation, for the sins of former generations, were it not identified with them in moral obligation, and in crime. It is not sufficient to account for all this, that the generation on which the judgment falls, has served itself heir to the guilt of former generations, by following the same evil courses; for we find, that even very considerable reformation in society has not always averted the punishment contracted by it in former ages. The reformation was great in Judah in the days of Josiah; “Notwithstanding, the Lord turned not from the fierceness of his great wrath, wherewith his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations that Manasseh had provoked him withal, &c.”[2 Kings xxiii. 26, 27.] The truth is, that as the individual, who goes on in his trespasses, suffers in old age, and at the hour of death, for the sins of his youth, on account of his moral identity throughout all the stages of human life; so society, regularly constituted, when it goes on in a course of wickedness, is, in consequence of its moral identity, ultimately subjected to the punishment due to the crimes committed by it, during the whole period of its existence.
Prop. 3. The continued identity of organised society, which we have attempted to illustrate, does not only render it the subject of permanent obligation with respect to those duties which it is necessarily under from the law of God, but also with regard to those arising from voluntary engagements. If these engagements are but of temporary concern, they are binding till discharged; if they have a permanent object, their obligation must continue on the society so long as it exists. Of the first class, we have an example in the case of the national oath taken by the heads of the tribes of Israel, to carry up the bones of Joseph with them to the land of promise. Though two hundred years had elapsed, and the individuals who had taken the oath had gone to the world of spirits, yet the society they represented still existed, and on it the obligation of the oath continued to devolve. “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you.”[Exod. xiii. 19.] Of the last class, we may mention the league between the princes of Israel and the Gibeonites. It had a permanent object, and was perpetually binding upon that people. Though there were many things improper in the original formation of that league, yet at no future period might the Israelites touch the Gibeonites, because the princes had sworn unto them by the Lord God of Israel.[Josh. ix. 18.] We may also mention the league of amity between Solomon and Hiram. This league was binding upon the nations represented by them, and on the descendants of these nations, to the latest posterity. Hence we find, that many generations after it had been entered into, the Tyrians are threatened with the heavy judgments of God, for violating it, by their cruel treatment of the Israelites who fled to them for refuge. “Thus saith the Lord, for three transgressions of Tyrus, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof, because they delivered up the whole captivity to Edom, and remembered not the brotherly covenant.”[Amos i. 9.] We cannot help noticing here, that the ridicule with which some have of late treated the arguments drawn from these examples in support of the perpetual obligation of religious covenants, on account of their having a respect to things civil, must proceed from extreme ignorance, or something worse. The obligation of an oath is a moral obligation, whatever be the subject to which it refers; and its permanent obligation on society proceeds upon the same principle, whether it has a respect to things civil, or things religious, namely, the moral identity of the society which has entered into the engagement. Why all this ridicule? It applies equally to the mode of reasoning adopted by the Spirit of God. Does not Paul, under the guidance of the Spirit of inspiration, reason from the stability of a man’s covenant, when confirmed by oath, to the immutability of God's covenant of promise? “Brethren, I speak after the manner of men, though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth or addeth thereto.”[Gal. iii. 15.]
Prop. 4. The last mentioned proposition applies with peculiar force to those obligations under which society may come by a public profession of religion, and by promissory oaths respecting it which have a permanent object.
That men, in their social capacity, are bound to make a public profession of revealed religion, is evident from Scripture. It is no less evident, that having made that profession, they are, in their social state, under new obligations to cleave to the truths and cause of God. The obligation, however, arising from profession is strictly moral; for God does not only require us to confess with the mouth the Lord Jesus, but considers us as under additional obligation to cleave to his cause from having made that profession. “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering.”[Heb. x. 23.] The obligation of profession continues permanently upon the society by which it is made, whether it be a single congregation, an extended church, or a whole nation. It is bound to hold it fast, not only in the letter, but in the spirit of it. This appears from the charge, brought against the church of Ephesus more than forty years after her erection, of having left her first love; and the call addressed to her to repent and to do the first works. It is probable that her original constituent members were all gone to the other world; yet she is addressed by Christ as the same society, unaffected by the lapse of time or the change of individuals, and under the same obligation to hold fast the profession made by her on her first erection. “Nevertheless, I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love. Remember, therefore, from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works.”[Rev. ii. 4, 5.] But if it be found, that the obligation of public profession continues upon society, unaffected by the lapse of time or the change of individuals, the doctrine pleaded for follows of course; for social vows entered into by society for promoting reformation, and the oaths by which they are ratified, are only a religious profession in its higher degrees of solemnity. If it is of perpetual obligation as made in its most simple form, much more when embodied in a solemn vow or promissory oath to God. Farther, that society is warranted, for the purpose of promoting mutual confidence, strengthening a sense of obligation to steadfastness in a religious profession, and as a means of transmitting it pure and entire to posterity, to consolidate their profession by a social vow, or promissory oath, will not, we apprehend, be denied by many Presbyterians, however much they may differ as to the seasonableness of the duty in present times. The practice is fully warranted by Scripture precept and example. We apprehend it will also be granted, that these solemnities lay society under additional obligation to cleave to the truths and cause of God. It is not pleaded, that the original obligation they were under from the general laws of religion is increased; for every obligation arising necessarily from the law of God is perfect, and can admit of no enlargement. But they are laid under additional obligation to the same duty on new grounds, or by virtue of their pledge to one another, and their promise and oath to the Most High God. And this obligation is strictly moral; for the same law which requires us to make a public and joint profession, warrants us to embody it in a social vow, as a means of promoting steadfastness; and having done so, it recognises the obligation of our vow, and requires us to pay it; and if ratified by an oath, it recognises the obligation of that oath, and requires us religiously to observe it. “Wow and pay unto the Lord thy God; let all that be round about him bring presents to him who ought to be feared.”[Psalm lxxvi. 11.] Hence also the guilt incurred by society by covenant-violation. They do not only break the laws of religion in general, by their apostacy, but the ninth commandment in particular, by the violation of the solemn pledge given to one another of mutual support in the work of God; and the third, by taking God's name in vain in the matter of an oath. Moreover, these solemn engagements having a permanent object, must be of perpetual obligation upon the society which enters into them. The vows come under by the individual in youth, which have a permanent object, must, on account of his continued moral identity, be binding upon him through life. In like manner, society regularly constituted, having a similar identity, such engagements, as those we have now described, must be binding on the society which enters into them so long as it exists.
The principle upon which the obligation pleaded for proceeds, is admitted by mankind in general in its application to civil treaties, from the most polished courtier to the savage who inhabits the desert; but certainly society is as capable of public faith in what relates to a religious profession, as in matters merely civil. We shall only add, that it is generally admitted that public vows are means of transmitting the cause of religion to posterity; but we cannot see their tendency to do this, if, as some have supposed, their obligation ceases with the lives of the original covenanters. In this case, their successors, in the social state, would feel no obligation from them, either to adhere to the cause themselves, or to transmit it to others.
Prop. 5. The obligation of social vows on posterity may be proved from their analogy to other religious institutions. Circumcision was not only a seal of privilege to the Israelites, but a bond of their duty to God. It was “a seal of the righteousness of faith,” and the person circumcised was “a debtor to the whole law,” ceremonial as well as moral. Now, that ordinance was to be administered, not only in the case of those adults who acceded to the Church, but in that of their infants, by virtue of the promise which also extended to them. These infants, when they came to the years of discretion, were recognised by God as in the same condition, both as to the privileges and duties arising from this ordinance, as those who had been circumcised after they came to the years of maturity. On this ground they were admitted to all the privileges of the visible Church, and became debtors to the whole law. But by whose act did they enjoy those privileges, or come under those obligations? Not surely by any act of their own; for in circumcision they were wholly passive. It must, therefore, have been by a connexion established between them and their parents.
The same reasoning applies to baptism. The Westminster Divines very properly observe, that baptism seals our ingrafting into Christ, and our engagement to be the Lord’s. But do those who, in infancy, are by their parents devoted to God in baptism, enjoy no privilege, or lie under no obligation from that act? To assert this would be to deny, in a great measure, the utility of infant baptism to children. But if they derive privilege, and lie under obligations from their baptism, it must be by virtue of the deed of their parents; for in the dispensation of the ordinance they are merely passive. The fact is, God has connected the parent and the child as in the covenant, so in the external dispensation both of the promise and its seal; and as the child, by the act of the parent, becomes the subject of baptism as a seal of privilege, he becomes by the same act the subject of it as a bond of duty. Though we do not say that these cases are exactly parallel to social vows or covenants, yet they serve to establish the general principle, that posterity may be, and actually are, brought under obligation with regard to religion by the deeds of ancestors.
Prop. 6. This doctrine is corroborated by the general sense of mankind, with respect to civil leagues or covenants. The Magna Charta, or Bill of Rights, obtained by the people of England under King John, and confirmed to them by his son Henry III. was a league or covenant between the people and their rulers. But this league, though entered into above 600 years ago, is still considered valid. The original contractors are long since gone to the other world; but the body-politic remains, and on it the obligation rests. The debts lawfully contracted by the government of a nation, if not liquidated, continue obligatory upon the nation, though all the individuals living when they were contracted should be extinct. The national debt contracted in the reign of William III. attaches to the British nation at this day, though not one of the persons who constituted the nation when that debt was contracted is now alive. Were this denied, there would be an end to all national confidence.
But are religious covenants, entered into for promoting reformation, and transmitting religious privileges, less obligatory upon society than deeds merely secular? Certainly not. Society is doubtless as capable of public faith and permanent obligations in the one case as in the other. Moreover, such deeds as the covenants of our ancestors lay society under stronger obligation than mere civil contracts between rulers and subjects. In the one case, the public faith is pledged more directly between man and man; but in the other there is a solemn explicit engagement to God. In these covenants, the covenanters do not only engage to be true to one another, but also, with all the solemnity of an oath, promise to be faithful to God in promoting the great work of reformation.
Prop. 7. The doctrine of the perpetual obligation of social vows or covenants, may also be illustrated from examples in Scripture. It may be necessary, before entering immediately upon this part of our subject, to advert a little to the meaning of the word covenant. It properly signifies an agreement between two or more parties. The primary meaning of the word is never lost sight of, in all its applications, throughout the Scriptures. When used in a sense purely figurative, there is still a reference to the effects of a proper covenant. One effect of it is confirmation, and in allusion to this, God's establishment respecting the seasons, is called a covenant.[Jer. xxxiii. 20.] Another effect of a proper covenant, is peace or safety; and it is in allusion to this that God promises to make for his people a covenant with the beasts of the field, and with the fowls of heaven, and with the creeping things of the ground.[Hosea ii. 18.] It is also put by a synedoche for a part of a covenant. Thus the promise of salvation through Christ is called a covenant, because a stipulation in the covenant established between the Father and Christ about man’s redemption.[Gal. iii. 17.] The moral law is also called a covenant, not simply, however, as a law, but viewed as the stipulation of a covenant.[Deut. v. 3.] These remarks were necessary on account of the attempts of some to limit the signification of the term to that of a law, in order to get rid of the doctrine of covenant obligation.
We now proceed to illustrate the doctrine, by the federal transactions with God's ancient people at Horeb, and in the plains of Moab; by showing that the transactions were federal, and that posterity were included in, and laid under obligation by them.
The transaction at Horeb is called a covenant, and this covenant is said to have been made by God with Israel. This cannot simply mean, that on that occasion they were brought under a dispensation of God's covenant of promise, for this had long been their family privilege, by the grant made to their father Abraham. That grant was, no doubt, renewed to them on this occasion, as the foundation on which they were to proceed, in entering into a covenant of duty, but the transaction must not be limited to it. This appears from the Apostle distinguishing the Abrahamic covenant from the Sinaic, and declaring that the latter could not supersede the former; “And this I say, that the covenant which was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.”[Gal. iii. 17.] Neither are we to understand the covenanting here, as signifying no more than a Divine dispensation of privileges and laws to Israel; for it contains not only promises and laws on the part of God, but also engagements on the part of the people; and the whole conducted by Moses acting in the character of a mediator between the parties. We have a summary of the stipulations on the part of God. “Now, therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me, above all people, for all the earth is mine. And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.”[Exod. xix. 5, 6.] We have also the engagement on the part of the people, “And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words, which the Lord commanded him. And all the people answered together, and said, All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.”[Verses 7, 8.] And to show more explicitly the federal nature of the transaction, it is added, “And Moses returned the words of the people unto the Lord.”[Verse 8.] The terms of the covenant, on the part of God, are given more in detail; and when the whole was about to be ratified by sacrifice, their engagement was renewed once and again, “And Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord, and all the judgments: and all the people answered with one voice, and said, All the words which the Lord hath said will we do.”[Chaps. xx-xxiii.] “And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people, and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient.”[Chap. xxiv. 3, 7.] The engagement into which they entered on earth, so far as external profession was concerned, was approved and ratified in heaven. “And the Lord heard the voice of your words, when ye spake unto me, and the Lord said unto me, I have heard the voice of the words of this people, which they have spoken unto thee; they have well said all that they have spoken, &c.”[Deut. v. 28, 29.]
This transaction was renewed in the plains of Moab over against Jericho, in the fortieth year after the children of Israel came out of Egypt; and from the following account of it, it appears that it had all the formality of a covenant, containing mutual stipulations between God and the people. “Thou hast avouched the Lord this day to be thy God, and to walk in his ways, and to keep his statutes, and his commandments, and his judgments, and to hearken unto his voice. And the Lord hath avouched thee this day to be his peculiar people, as he hath promised thee; and that thou shouldst keep all his commandments.”[Deut. xxvi. 17, 18.] The engagement of the people was made with all the solemnity of an oath; “Ye stand this day, all of you before the Lord your God, &c. That thou shouldest enter into covenant with the Lord thy God, and into his oath which the Lord thy God maketh with thee this day.”[Chap. xxix. 10–12.]
We have still to show that posterity were included in these transactions; and laid under obligations by them to all the duties which they contained, as really as the original covenanters.
This appears from the history of the transactions themselves. We find Moses, speaking of the Sinaic covenant after all the original covenanters were dead, save himself, Caleb, and Joshua, declares that the covenant was not made with them only, but with their posterity whom he then addressed;—“The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day.”[Chap. v. 2, 3.] The federal transaction in the plains of Moab also included posterity;—“Neither with you only do I make this covenant, and this oath, but with him that standeth here with us this day, before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day.”[Chap. xxix. 14, 15.] We may add the words of God in reference to the happy results which would flow to posterity, as well as to the original covenanters, should they continue steadfast in the covenant;—“O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me, and keep all my commandments always, that it might be well with them and with their children for ever.”[Chap. v. 29.]
This appears also, from posterity, even in distant ages, being charged, upon their apostacy from God, with the violation of these deeds; as it plainly shows that they were identified with their fathers, in the obligations they came under, by entering into them. The continued identity of God's ancient people,—the principle upon which the obligation pleaded for proceeds,—is stated by Jeremiah.[Jer. ii. 2.] And the generation which lived in the prophet's day, is identified, in its engagements, with the generation which came out of Egypt, and condemned for the violation of them;—“For of old time, I have broken thy yoke, and burst thy bands, and thou saidst I will not transgress, when upon every high hill, and under every green tree, thou wanderest playing the harlot.”[Verse 20.]
We are aware that this text admits of a different reading, and that some have seized upon this circumstance, to get rid of the argument from it, in support of continued covenant obligation. In the margin, the verb which we read to transgress, is rendered to serve. Adopting this reading, the words will run, “Thou saidst I will not serve.” But to make out the sense something must be supplied. If we make the supplement the Lord, the only one that can answer the purpose of our objectors, then it was not a fact. At the time to which this clause obviously refers, the Israelites did not say that they would not serve the Lord. On the contrary, they said once and again, yea a third time, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.” But let us make the supplement other gods, then the passage will run, “We will not serve other gods.” In this case, the argument from it in support of continued covenant obligation, is, if possible, stronger than ever. This is in substance, though not in words, all that they did say, and it corresponds exactly with the tenor of the covenant on God's part. He said, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” and they said, in the way of engaging to obey the Divine prescription, “We will not serve other gods.” Moreover, this view is necessary to support the contrast, obviously intended in the verse, between their engagement and their conduct. Their conduct was in direct violation of that engagement. Idolatry in the case of God's covenant people, is called whoredom. “But upon every high hill, and under every green tree, they had wandered playing the harlot.” This view accords with the Syriac version, which ranks deservedly high with the best critics. It runs, “Thou saidst I will not again serve another god.”
Where there is no law, there can be no transgression. But in the same prophecy God threatens to punish that people for the breach of the covenant made with their ancestors; they must, therefore, have been under obligation from that covenant;—“The house of Israel, and the house of Judah, have broken my covenant, which I made with their fathers. Therefore, thus saith the Lord, Behold I will bring evil upon them, which they shall not be able to escape.”[Jer. xi. 10, 11.]
To get rid of this and similar texts, as proofs of the doctrine pleaded for, its adversaries tell us, that the covenant said to be entered into and violated, is never called the covenant of the people, but God’s covenant; and they thence infer, that the charge brought against Israel of breaking the covenant, turns simply upon God's law in the covenant, and not upon the engagement of the people to keep that law. It is no way strange that the covenant should be called God’s covenant. Nothing is more common than to designate transactions of this nature, from the most honourable party concerned in them. Besides, we find federal transactions called, in Scripture, the covenants of God, in which he was not an immediate party, simply from their being ratified by oath in his name; such as the covenant between David and Jonathan,[1 Sam. xx. 8.] and the marriage covenant.[Prov. ii. 17.] Moreover, it is a mistake to say, that the Sinaic covenant is never called the covenant of the people. It is so denominated, and that too with a particular reference to the interest which posterity, to the latest ages, had in it. “And yet for all that, when they be in the land of their enemies, I will not cast them away, neither will I abhor them to destroy them utterly, and to break my covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God. But I will, for their sakes, remember the covenant of their ancestors, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt, in the sight of the heathen, that I might be their God; I am the Lord.”[Lev. xxvi. 44, 45.] We readily admit that the terms of that covenant, on God’s part, had all the force of a law, and that they would have been binding on the people, whether they had engaged to observe them or not. But what we insist for is, that having vowed and sworn to observe them, they were under covenant obligation to the same duties: and we insist farther, that whenever that people, or their posterity, are charged with breaking God’s covenant, the charge has a particular respect to the violation of the engagements under which they came in entering into the covenant. It is, without doubt, a charge of violating God’s law, but with the especial aggravation of doing so, after coming under solemn engagements to observe it.
But the language of Scripture itself sufficiently settles this point. In many places where the charge is preferred both against the original covenanters and their posterity, it is an explicit charge of violating their engagement in the covenant. This is, without doubt, the case when they are blamed with hypocrisy in entering into it, and with lying, in not continuing stedfast in it. “Nevertheless, they did flatter him with their mouth, and they lied unto him with their tongues. For their heart was not right with him, neither were they stedfast in his covenant.”[Psalm lxxviii. 36, 37.] What leads to the same conclusion; does not the Church, in the days of David, when pleading her integrity in keeping that covenant, make it to turn upon her fidelity to her engagements? “All this is come upon us, yet have we not forgotten thee, neither have we dealt falsely in thy covenant.”[Psalm xliv. 17.] What reason can be assigned for God taking to himself the character of the husband of the Church, unless we refer it to the mutual engagements come under at Horeb? Does not God himself refer it to that federal transaction? “Yea I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord God, and thou becamest mine.”[Ezek. xvi. 8.] Or what reason can be assigned for the apostacy of God's ancient people into idolatry, being called in the subsequent verses, adultery, a designation never applied, in Scripture, to the idolatry of the Gentiles, but that it was a breach of their marriage vow? Is not this the import of the charge on which the threatening proceeds? “And I will judge thee as women that break wedlock, and shed blood, are judged, and I will give thee blood in fury and jealousy.”[Verse 38.] And does not the charge of covenant violation turn directly, not only upon their vow made in their ancestors, but also upon the oath by which it was ratified? “Thus saith the Lord, I will even deal with thee as thou hast done, which hast despised the oath, in breaking the covenant.”[Verse 59.]
We now proceed to illustrate the doctrine from the Scriptures of the New Testament, taken in connection with Old Testament predictions which refer to New Testament times.
It has been asserted by those who deny the obligation pleaded for, that in vain we expect to find the doctrine in the New Testament Scriptures, and that they say not one word about it. From what has already been said, it will appear to the intelligent reader, that this is a mistake. The doctrine is recognised in the New Testament; but though it had been silent about it, we would not on that account have been warranted to abandon it, since it is clearly taught in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. Besides, we have seen, in the introductory observations on the nature of public religious covenanting, that it has its foundation in natural law, and must be a moral duty under every religious dispensation. The same observation applies to the continued obligation of social vows, or covenants, which have a permanent object. This obligation, as we have seen, proceeds upon the moral identity of society, in every stage of its existence, and that identity is founded in the moral relations, in which mankind in the social state necessarily stand, to God, and to one another.
Having seen that the law warrants public religious covenanting under the new, as well as under the old dispensation, we now proceed to enquire into the manner in which God is said to bring his people, in New Testament times, within the bond of the evangelical covenant; and if it be found to correspond exactly with the manner in which God's ancient people were made to pass into the Sinaic covenant, then public covenanting must appear to be a duty under the new as well as under the old dispensation, and the reasoning from the continued obligation of the Sinaic covenant, to that of similar deeds under the new dispensation, must be conclusive.
We shall refer our reader to the following passage: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand, to bring them out of the land of Egypt, &c.”[Jer, xxxi. 31, 32.] The whole passage is applied, by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews, to the two grand dispensations of revealed religion; the first under Moses, a servant in God's house, and the second under Christ, the Son over his own house: “For, finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand, to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel, after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts; and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people, &c.”[Heb. viii. 8, 9, 10.] Both are called covenants, on account of their relation to God’s covenant with his own Son about the redemption of fallen man; and testaments, because ratified and confirmed by sacrifice; the former by the sacrifice of slain beasts, and the latter by the death of Christ. They are in several respects different, and the latter far excels the former; but they differ purely in their matter, manner of ratification, and ends, and not in the form in which they are said to be made with the Church. With reference to this, the phraseology used respecting both is exactly the same. God is said to have made a covenant with the fathers; and he promises to make a covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah. Now we have seen, that the making of the first covenant with the fathers at Horeb, did not only comprehend a grant of privilege, accompanied with a prescription of duty on the part of God, but also a public and joint promise of obedience on the part of the people. It was not simply, as some tell us, a covenant made unto them, but as it is elsewhere expressed, a covenant into which they passed, or entered, by their own solemn engagement.
The making of the new covenant with the house of Judah, and with the house of Israel, under the present economy, must be understood as of equal extent. It must not only include a dispensation of the privileges and laws of the new economy of grace, on God’s part, but a public and joint engagement, on the part of his people, to cleave to his truth and cause. Now what is this but social vowing, or public covenanting? All this is necessary to the very constitution of a Christian church, and in the New Testament it bears the designation of profession. The individual believer passes externally into the evangelical covenant, or he enters the Church as a covenanted society, by the profession of his faith in Christ and obedience to him; and it is under the banner of such a profession that all rightly constituted churches are formed. They do not resemble the mob collected at Ephesus by the votaries of Diana, the greater part of whom did not know wherefore they were come together. No; they are an association connected by their common faith and profession of the gospel. It was in this way that the Hebrew converts were formed into an organised society on the day of Pentecost. Such an union in heart as that exemplified by those who first trusted in Christ, was the effect of their one faith, and of that faith as displayed by one common profession of adherence to the confederative bond of the new covenant. It was under this bond that they were like a city built compactly together. “They continued stedfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine, and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” The Gentile churches were organised in the same way. They were associated under the banner of the same common profession of faith in Christ, and obedience to him; and is there nothing in all this like public religious covenanting? Yes, in the organization of every Scriptural church there must be implicit covenanting. The very nature of the Church requires it. She is a society in covenant with God; it is by a public and joint profession of adherence to his truths and cause that she is to pass, as the Israelites did at Horeb, into that covenant; and it is under this public banner that she is distinguished from all other societies. This profession may, we admit, be made without all the formality of a vow, or a promise addressed immediately to God; but it involves in it both the matter and obligation of a vow, since made in the presence of the Church, or before her functionaries acting in God’s name, and by his authority. Moreover, it also involves in it confederation. It is not only an engagement to cleave to the Lord, but also a solemn pledge given by Church members to one another, to abide by one another, and to strengthen one another’s hands in his way and work. But such a public and joint profession we have seen, whether made by the Church as a whole, or by some particular department of it, is binding upon it as long as it exists.
Is it still insisted that all this does not amount to formal vowing? Granting that this is the case, examples of formal vows, and these too embodying the whole, or a part of a Christian profession, are not wanting in the New Testament. Our Lord's little family, composed of the twelve Apostles, who constantly attended upon his person and ministry, are to be considered as the incipient Church under the new dispensation. But this was a covenanted Church not merely implicitly, upon its first formation, when they forsook all and followed Jesus; but also explicitly, on an occasion of great trial, when the interests of Emmanuel seemed on the eve of ruin, by a great defection from his cause among his professed followers. On this occasion he put the question to the twelve, Will ye also go away? This drew from them a social vow of attachment to his person and cause; for though Peter was the speaker on that occasion, yet he spoke as the mouth, and in the name of all the rest. “Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure, that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God.”[John vi. 68, 69.] An oath is an appeal to Divine omniscience respecting our sincerity; but we find that Peter, after his mournful fall, was not restored to the functions of his office, till he had renewed his vow with the solemnity of an oath, by an appeal to our Lord's omniscience, respecting the sincerity of his love to him: “He saith unto him the third time, Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me? Peter was grieved because he said unto him the third time, lovest thou me? And he said unto him, Lord, thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee.”[Chap. xxi. 17.] Was there nothing like explicit public religious covenanting in the dedication which Paul and Barnabas made of the churches of Antioch, Lystra, and Iconium, to the Lord? Did not those ministers act on these occasions as the mouth of these churches. And if so, one would think that the act itself must have been the public and joint act of these churches: “And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed, with fasting, they commended, or dedicated, them to the Lord, on whom they believed.”[Acts xiv. 23.] Can any other account be given of the exercise of the churches of Macedonia? “And this they did, not as we hoped, but first gave their own selves to the Lord, and unto us by the will of God.”[2 Cor. viii. 5.] One object for which they were met, was to collect money for the relief of the poor saints at Jerusalem; but before they proceeded in this good work, they made a public and joint dedication of their own selves to the Lord. This cannot refer to those implicit vows under which a people come, when they are formed into a church state; for they had long been organized as a church. Neither can it refer to that constructive vowing which takes place in the observation of the Lord's Supper, or other ordinances frequently dispensed in the Church; for that was no more than what the Apostle expected from them. But this was a special service, for which he did not look at the time; and the language used to express it sufficiently determines its nature; for it is the appropriate language of Scripture for expressing vowing or covenanting.
Is it farther insisted, that we have nothing said even here about swearing or subscription? We might reply, that we have as little said against it. The warrantableness of an oath for confirmation is recognised in the New Testament as well as in the Old. And though we had no example of its application in the New Testament Scriptures in the case of religious vowing, it would not prove that it is unwarrantable. We have many instances of religious observances, about which the greater part of Christians are agreed, of which as little, or less, is said in the New Testament, but which must be inferred from general principles equally applicable to both dispensations; such as the baptism of the infants of those who are members of the visible Church, and the religious observation of the Christian Sabbath. But we have given an example of the ratification of a vow with an oath, in the case of Peter; and we find that it is foretold in the writings of the prophets, that this should be practised by society in the New Testament times. It seems to have been God's usual way to bring forward his Church by degrees, as circumstances required, to accompany her public profession with these solemnities. The covenanting at Horeb was in the form of a simple engagement to cleave to the truths and cause of God; but after this engagement had been violated, the Church was required, as a farther means of promoting steadfastness, to renew her engagements with the solemnity of an oath, in the plains of Moab. And it is well worthy of our notice, that it was after the Church in New Testament times, had fallen into deep apostacy under the reign of Antichrist, that God brought her forward at the time of the Reformation, to renew her engagements with the solemnity of an oath. The same observation applies to Peter’s case: it was not till he had violated his vow that he renewed it with an oath. That the Church should do so with reference to the whole, or a part, of her religious profession, in New Testament times, is plainly foretold. “In that day shall five cities in the land of Egypt speak the language of Canaan, and swear to the Lord of Hosts.”[Isa. xix. 18.] “And the Lord shall be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians shall know the Lord in that day, and shall do sacrifice and oblation; yea, they shall vow a vow unto the Lord, and perform it.”[Verse 21.] “One shall say, I am the Lord’s, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob; and another shall subscribe with his hand unto the Lord, and surname himself by the name of Israel.”[Isa. xliv. 5.] “I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return: That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.”[Isa. xlv. 23.]
Attempts have been made to set aside these passages, as proofs that swearing and subscription should be practised by the Church in New Testament times, with reference to her profession, by explaining the word swearing, as referring to religious worship in general; and in support of this comment we have been referred to the last mentioned passage, as quoted by the Apostle Paul, from the Septuagint, where the word to swear, in the Prophet, is rendered by a word which, in our version, is translated to confess. But the rendering of the passage from the Septuagint, as quoted by Paul, tends rather to strengthen than to weaken the argument from it in favour of religious swearing. The Greek word, as quoted by Paul, (ἐξομολογήσηται) is a compound of the word usually rendered to confess, and a preposition which signifies of out of; and denotes not merely to confess, but to do it with all possible publicity and solemnity; which is done when the confession is made by the ordinance of swearing. The idea in the Prophet of solemnizing a religious profession by an oath, is therefore still kept up in the Septuagint version as quoted by the Apostle. This will farther appear from the connexion in which the quotations are made. In the one place, the Apostle quotes the passage to point out the manner in which all human beings should own our Lord’s supremacy over all creatures and things, which should, without doubt, be done with every possible solemnity, “And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”[Phil. ii. 11.] In the other, the idea of swearing is still more prominent. In making confession by oath, there is an appeal to Divine omniscience as to our sincerity, and it is evidently in allusion to this, that the Apostle applies the passage by way of accommodation to the discovery that shall be made of the secrets of every heart at the day of judgment. It shall be an examination as upon oath, when the state, character, and thoughts of every man shall be fully explored by the Judge of all; “For we shall all stand before the judgment-seat of Christ. For it is written, as I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.”[Rom. xiv. 10, 11.] The use which Luke makes of the same word, serves to confirm our view. It is used by him to signify to promise, by way of a stipulation in a bargain or covenant, “And they were glad, and covenanted to give him money. And (ἐξωμολόγησε) he promised, and sought opportunity to betray him unto them, in the absence of the multitude.”[Luke xxii. 5, 6.]
It may be proper to inquire whether any notice is taken, in the New Testament, of the continued obligation of these engagements entered into by Christian churches. This part of our subject indeed has been, in a great measure, anticipated in the second proposition, where we proved the continued moral identity of society, from the old as well as from the New Testament Scriptures. Nor is it necessary, in order to prove the obligation contended for, that we be able to fix upon an example of the Church engaging in public religious covenanting, with the solemnity of swearing, in the days of the Apostles; for this obligation is the obligation of profession, according to the degree of solemnity with which it has been made; and as we have seen already, if it be found to be of perpetual obligation on society in its more simple forms, it must be still more so when entered into with the solemnity of an oath.
From the period of the first organization of the Hebrew Christians under the banner of a public and joint profession, to the time when the Epistle dedicated to them was written, no less than thirty years had intervened; so that the greater part of the constituent members of the association must have been dead; yet throughout the Epistle, they are addressed as the same body which had been illuminated, converted, and comforted, under the ministry of Peter and the other Apostles, on, and immediately after, the day of Pentecost. Is not this implied in the assertion? “For we are made partakers of Christ, if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast unto the end.”[Heb. iii. 14.] Is not the profession which the Hebrew Church is required to hold fast, the same which she had espoused on the day of Pentecost?[Chap. x. 23.] Is she not required to look back to that period, as the time when she came under the obligation of that profession? “But call to remembrance the former days, in which, after ye were illuminated, ye endured a great fight of afflictions.”[Ver. 32.] And is she not exhorted, not to abandon that profession either in its letter or spirit? “Cast not away, therefore, your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward.”[Heb. x. 35.] Is not the Church at Rome compared to a wild olive, graffed into the good olive tree, upon her first erection, spoken of as one, throughout the several periods of her existence; and is not she warned against that pride and presumption, which many ages after, were the causes of her great apostacy, and shall ultimately be the causes of her ruin?[Rom. xi. 17, 18, 19.] Is not her danger clearly set before her, should she abandon that profession of Christ, which she made upon her first organization as a Church![Ver. 20, 21.] Is it not for abandoning that profession, that she is represented under the character of a whore, many centuries after?[Rev. xvii. 5.] And does not all this show that she was under the obligation of that profession throughout all the ages of her existence, and shall at last be punished for the violation of it? We have already illustrated the permanent obligation of profession, from our Lord’s address to the Church of Ephesus, in the discussion of the fourth proposition. We may add here, that the judgments threatened against that Church, against the Church of Pergamos, and against the Church of Sardis,[Rev. ii. 5–16, and iii. 3.] were for a course of apostacy from a religious profession, already begun; and on account of which these judgments were executed, many centuries after, by the Saracens, and afterwards by the Turks, who laid the fair regions of Asia waste, and almost extinguished the Christian name throughout the East. But we have seen that accumulating guilt, in the case of bodies-corporate, supposes continued obligation; for where law does not attach there can be no transgression. And it is strange that the doctrine pleaded for should be denied, when we behold God continuing at this day, to plead a controversy with the Jews for innocent blood shed by their nation above eighteen hundred years ago.
It remains for us to answer some objections which have been made against the application of the doctrine to the covenants of our ancestors; First, As they relate to the matter of these federal deeds; and, Secondly, As they respect their obligation upon posterity. If the first class of objections were found valid, there would be no room for proceeding farther; in this case the covenants could be binding neither upon the original covenanters, nor upon their posterity.
First, They have been condemned by some on account of their mixed nature, as referring to things civil as well as religious; and because, as has been supposed, they countenance an improper connection between the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdoms of this world. That the Solemn League had for its object, a civil as well as a religious reformation, is admitted. But if the civil reformation was warrantable and dutiful, it must not be condemned on that account, more especially as the civil reformation claimed by the covenanters, was necessary to the security of their religious liberties. Are not civil duties relative duties, and does not the law of God enjoin those duties, which we owe to one another as citizens, as well as those which we owe as Church members? Does it not inculcate true patriotism, as well as true piety? But it cannot be improper to introduce into a religious vow, any thing enjoined in God’s law, Has not the Holy Spirit joined in the same sentence, the religious fear which we owe to God, as the great supreme, and the civil honour which we owe to the chief magistrate? And must that precept, “Fear God, and honour the king,” be discarded because of its mixed nature? Ought we to have had one Bible enjoining religious duties, and another enjoining those that are civil?
But is it still insisted, that it does not merely respect civil duties, but a political object? We reply, that the covenanters proposed no new scheme of politics; all that they bound themselves to, was to support one another in the defence of those rights which had been secured to them by the constitutional laws of the country, but which were in danger of being wrested from them by the arbitrary measures of Erastian princes. With respect to the other part of the objection, we may observe, that taking into account the circumstances in which our ancestors were placed, the charge seems to be groundless. So far were they from countenancing an improper connection between the Church and the kingdoms of this world, that one object proposed by the Solemn League, was the overthrow of such a connection, as it existed in England and Ireland, where the king, at the head of the hierarchy, claimed supremacy over all causes, ecclesiastical as well as civil. This hierarchy, with all its Erastian encroachments, the covenanters engaged to suppress and extirpate. In both deeds, it is true, they bind themselves to protect the king's person, in the defence and preservation of the true religion; but this cannot be construed as confounding the Church with the kingdoms of this world, unless we object to the provision which had been made, at least in Scotland, by the laws of the country, for the outward protection of the reformed Church in all her rights and privileges; for the king, in giving this protection, was only to act as the administrator of the laws of the nation. But such a provision, if made with proper limitations, is, as we have seen already, neither incompatible with the rights of conscience, nor the spiritual independence of the kingdom of Christ.
In reply to the objections brought against these covenants, on account of their mixed nature, we shall quote from an author who is well known to have been no friend to secularized churches. After admitting that the cavils against the Solemn League, on account of its mixed nature, might have been prevented had our ancestors framed two bonds, the one in defence of their civil, and the other in defence of their religious liberties, he adds, “After all, the situation of those worthy persons made it scarcely practicable for them to have done otherwise than they did. Aspiring princes aimed at their religious rights in order to deprive them of their civil property, while ambitious dignitaries in the Church conspired with the princes to rob them of their natural rights, in order to seize on their spiritual liberties. Attempts being thus made, and from different quarters, upon both their civil and religious rights, they were violently forced upon a necessity of blending them in the defence of them. What were united in the mode of opposition, it was natural, and almost necessary, to unite in the mode of defence. It was from this source alone, and from no attachment to Erastianism, that they made the taking or swearing of these covenants a condition or qualification for civil or military trust.”
Secondly, They have also been condemned as favouring persecuting principles. It is greatly to the honour of these federal deeds that this objection has, for the most part, been brought forward by persons totally ignorant of their contents; as appears from their charging the covenanters with engaging to extirpate Papists. Had they read these covenants, they would have found that it was not persons, but principles, that the covenanters engaged to suppress and extirpate. But if Popery and Prelacy are corrupt systems, they ought certainly to be extirpated by every Scriptural means. Do not the ministrations of every true Presbyterian minister directly or indirectly tend to undermine Prelacy; and do not the ministrations of every true Protestant necessarily tend to the extirpation of Popery? The clause in the Solemn League, in which the covenanters engaged to detect malignants, that they might be brought to public trial and punished, has already been considered. They had to contend with a party who sought to overthrow the constitutional liberties of the country; so that they were obliged to adopt these measures in defence not only of their religious liberties, but also of their natural rights as men, and their civil privileges as citizens. There is no evidence that this measure was intended to disturb any man, or class of men, for their religious persuasion, provided they conducted themselves peaceably as members of civil society. The same remark applies to the taking, or swearing, of the covenant being enjoined by Parliament under civil pains and penalties. Had the covenanters had no other object in view but the propagation of religion, this would have been highly improper; but since this was conjoined with the defence of the liberties of the nation, they considered themselves warranted to enjoin the taking of the covenant in this way as a means of national safety. That these were the views of Parliament at the time, seems evident from their not annexing similar penalties in the sanction which they gave to the Confession of Faith, and the other explanatory Standards. These had for their object matters purely religious; accordingly all that was intended by the sanction given to them by the State, was to afford the Church legal protection in the maintenance of them by her own proper authority. But even granting that act of legislature to have been improper, it does not affect the covenants themselves. The best institutions have been abused by their improper administration. Even the sacrament of the Supper has been converted by the Church of England into a test of loyalty to the State, and by the Church of Rome into a sacrifice for the quick and the dead. The first Seceders held the perpetual obligation of these covenants; but they never pretended to justify every act of administration in reference to them. They did not consider this necessary to the defence of their obligation, since their matter was lawful, their end laudable, and the time at which they were entered into seasonable. Though the manner of entering into the league between Israel and the Gibeonites had many things in it improper, yet the league itself was of perpetual obligation. The Israelites might not at any future period touch that people, because the princes had sworn to them in the name of the Lord God of Hosts.
These objections have had an importance assigned to them by the enemies of the covenanted cause to which they are by no means entitled. What practical evils followed these legislative enactments respecting the taking of the covenant? Where is the instance of the man, or the woman, who suffered either in their persons or property for not taking the covenant from purely religious scruples? Or granting that some individuals were put to trouble, can it be wondered at in such a great national struggle? On the contrary, it would be truly astonishing that so few should have suffered from the hands of the covenanters, when they had the power on their side, after the cruel treatment they had met with from their opponents; and could only be accounted for by their zeal being tempered with the meekness, long-suffering, and gentleness of Christ.
Some objections which have been brought against the obligation of the covenants upon posterity, are now to be considered.
First, It has been insisted, that we cannot infer the perpetual obligation of our covenants from the example of religious covenants in Scripture, since the latter were either dictated by God, or framed by inspired men.
That the terms of the covenant at Horeb, upon which the engagement of the people reduplicated, were dictated by God is admitted; but none, we think, will insist that the people were inspired in uttering the words in which they formally engaged to these terms. But that other bonds entered into by the Church under that dispensation, such as those in the days of Asa and Nehemiah, were framed by inspired men, remains to be proved. That they were agreeable to God's revealed will, is evident from the matter of them, and their receiving the Divine approbation. It is no less evident, that the sacred writers, in giving us the history of these transactions, were guided by inspiration. Yet in framing these bonds, those who were employed might act under no other direction than that which is promised to the ministers of religion in every age. Farther, if the objection has any weight, it must go all the length of setting aside the authority of the ministerial dispensation of the word, ordinances, and laws of religion, in all cases, since the days of the Apostles; for since that period none of the ministers of religion have possessed the gift of inspiration. Our national covenants were framed by the ministers of the word, and in Scotland, at least, sanctioned by them in their judicial capacity. They had, therefore, all that spiritual authority which belongs to the other ministerial acts of the public functionaries of the Church, which, if agreeable to Scripture, though framed by men on earth, will be found to be bound by God in heaven. Moreover, our objectors seem to have forgotten, that in these federal transactions the engagement of the covenanters turned upon the word of God,—the whole word of God, as contained in the Old and New Testaments; and reduplicated upon the subordinate standards of the Church, only as explanatory of what they understood to be the mind of God in the Scriptures. The objection, therefore, is at once groundless and frivolous.
Secondly, It has been objected, that many things in these covenants rose out of existing circumstances, and were only of temporary concern, and cannot, therefore, be obligatory upon posterity. If this objection be intended to set aside the perpetual obligation of the whole of these deeds, it is most absurd. Suppose I promise to pay a sum of money by instalments, the one six, the other twelve months hence: and should I make good the first payment, will it warrant me to say, that I am under no obligation to make good the second? Certainly not. Though the public pledge given by society, in some articles of these deeds, had been completely redeemed the day after they were sworn and subscribed; this circumstance could not have set aside the obligation of the other articles which have a permanent object. The grand objects proposed and engaged unto in these covenants, were the further reformation of religion in the three kingdoms, and the preservation of religion so far as reformed. The latter would continue a permanent object till the end of time, even though the reformation itself, in respect of purity and uniformity, were carried to the highest supposable degree of perfection; consequently the engagement in these deeds, as it respects that object, must be perpetual. As to those articles in the covenants which refer to the conduct which our ancestors engaged to pursue, in promoting reformation, in their peculiar circumstances, they bind us to pursue the same line of conduct, should we be placed in similar circumstances; and in the mean time, to act up to their spirit, by improving the circumstances in which we are placed, for promoting the ends of reformation.
Thirdly, Others have argued that some things in these covenants are matters of doubtful disputation, and by some considered as unwarrantable, and will not this disannul the obligation of the whole? We are not prepared to admit that any thing in these deeds is either doubtful or unwarrantable. But even should it be granted, we cannot see that the conclusion would follow. If I make a promise wholly unlawful, I should fulfil no part of it. But should part of it be proper and right, and part of it wrong, I am still bound to fulfil that part of it which is right. The same reasoning applies to the engagements of society. Even supposing that some parts of these covenants were improper, society is still bound to fulfil those parts that are lawful and right.
Fourthly, Another objection is the difficulty of defining the obligation, and determining the line in which it descends. With respect to the first part of the difficulty, we may notice, that obligation is a simple idea, and any attempt to define it is rather calculated to confound, than to give a clear conception of its nature. It is an idea, however, of which all moral beings have some conception, not only as it attaches to individuals, but to bodies corporate; and in no instance is that conception more distinct, than when the obligation arises from promises or vows. To attempt to explain to a child in his third year the obligation arising from a promise, would be absurd; but should the father of the child engage to confer upon him some little favour, at some given period, the child would see and feel that his parent was under obligation from his promise. But the obligation pleaded for, is the same as it attaches to society. It is an obligation come under by the society, in virtue of a promise or vow to God, to prosecute the great work of reformation, and a solemn pledge to one another, to stand by and support each other in this good work.
Is it asked, what is the degree of the obligation of the vows of society, as it attaches to individual members? Is it of the same extent as the obligation arising from their own personal engagements to prosecute the same cause in their private capacity? The answer to these queries, must depend upon the capacity in which those individuals act in prosecuting that cause. The unlettered Indian can distinguish between public and private obligations, merely from his moral feelings. Suppose him when roving in the forest, sustaining no public character, and engaged in no public employment, to meet another Indian, belonging to a tribe with which his own nation is allied by solemn treaty; he would feel himself under obligation from that treaty, to act towards him with kindness. His sense of obligation, however, in this case, would not be so strong as it would have been, had he been connected with him by a personal bond of amity. Place that same Indian, however, in a public station, as a representative of his nation, and employ him to transact business with that other tribe, in prosecuting the ends of said treaty; and immediately he would feel himself identified with the nation to which he belongs in all the privileges resulting from it, and in all the obligations connected with it, to the same extent as he would have found himself bound by his own personal engagements. Apply this to individuals connected with a covenanted society, for promoting a great public cause, and who are under personal vows to promote the same cause in their private station. When acting in a private capacity, they must feel themselves under stronger obligation from their personal vows; but when called to social acting, as members of the confederated body, their sense of obligation from the public vows of the society should be equally strong. Nor is all this mere theory. It was realized in the feelings, and exemplified by the conduct of a great cloud of witnesses for the Covenanted Reformation in Scotland, during the late persecution. A great part of those who suffered during that period, had not entered personally into the public bonds of their country for promoting reformation; but they found themselves identified with the Covenanted Church of Scotland in her privileges, and also in the obligation under which she had come by her public vows, to transmit these privileges pure and entire to the latest posterity; and rather than deny that obligation, when called to bear public testimony for the covenanted cause, they submitted, not only to the most cruel tortures, but to death itself. And shall we conclude that these illustrious martyrs, who might have escaped had they abandoned those covenants, died as fools die, or that they sacrificed their lives to the impulse of a blind fanaticism? No; the striking proofs which they had of the countenance and approbation of God under their sufferings, and at the solemn hour of death, and the success with which their contendings were ultimately crowned for preserving a falling nation, and a sinking church, from ruin, forbid the conclusion.
With respect to the other part of the objection, or the difficulty of determining the manner in which the obligation descends, we may notice, that the subject has been perplexed by the abuse of the phrase “descending obligation.” We have seen that society, regularly constituted, is recognised both by God and man, as possessing a continued moral identity; so that the engagements under which it has come, if still unfulfilled, are obligatory upon it as long as it subsists. This being the case, the obligation of social vows, as it attaches to the society as a corporate and permanent body, is more properly termed a continued than a descending obligation. But the phrase, if not misapplied, has its use. In this one body-corporate there is, without doubt, a succession of generations of individual persons—a succession, however, which does not affect the identity of the body; and in reference to them we admit that the obligation descends.
But the question still remains,—How is the society to be defined to which the obligation of such deeds attaches, and on which it devolves? This must be determined by the character of the deeds themselves. If the federal transaction be confined to a family, the obligation must continue in the line of the family, as in the case of God’s covenant of priesthood with Levi.[Mal. ii. 4, 5.] If it be an ecclesiastical deed, the obligation must descend in the line of the Church. If a national deed, it must descend upon the nation. The federal deeds now under consideration, were ecclesiastical deeds, so far as the Reformed Church of Scotland was concerned, since sanctioned and authorised to be sworn by the supreme judicatory of that Church. Their obligation must, therefore, devolve upon all who are born in her; all who accede to her, or profess to hold by her principles and constitution. If these principles and that constitution be Scriptural, to abandon them must be sinful, and therefore even those who have abandoned them, are not thereby absolved from the obligation, under which they lie, in virtue of her federal deeds, to prosecute the work of the reformation.
But these covenants are confessedly also national deeds, and their obligation must devolve on the nations which entered into them. This appears from the titles of these covenants, which, without doubt, are descriptive of the views which the original covenanters had on the subject. They considered them as national deeds, and consequently binding to the latest posterity, on the nations which entered into them. This very circumstance, we are aware, has prejudiced many against these covenants. They would, however, do well to remember, that the covenants of God’s ancient people were national deeds, and that this did not arise from any peculiarity of that dispensation, but from the whole body of the nation being comprehended in them. Moreover, national covenanting is inconsistent neither with the spirit nor the letter of those predictions, which refer to the practice of the duty in New Testament times. Nations are cities on a larger scale; but we are told that in New Testament times, “five cities in the land of Egypt shall speak the language of Canaan, and swear to the Lord of Hosts.” “Yea, they (the Egyptians,) shall vow a vow unto the Lord, and perform it.”[Isaiah xix. 18, 21.] It is foretold, “that the kingdoms of this world shall become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ,”[Rev. xi. 15.] which must refer not merely to their faith, but to their public and joint profession. We are also told, that the nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory; but the connection leads us to conclude, that they shall do so in the way of national covenanting. “And thou shalt swear, The Lord liveth, in truth, in judgment, and in righteousness; and the nations shall bless themselves in him, and in him shall they glory.”[Jer. iv. 2.]
We apprehend, however, that the objections of some persons, particularly to the Solemn League, do not proceed so much upon its being a national deed, as upon the parties entering into it not being all of the same ecclesiastical fellowship, and their being recognised in the bond by their civil titles or designations. The difficulty, so far as it arises from the confederates not being all of the same ecclesiastical fellowship, has been already obviated in the fifth observation, respecting the nature of covenanting; and with respect to their appearing in the bond, under their civil titles and designations, we shall only notice, First, that this could no more convert their covenanting into a mere civil transaction, than the civil titles prefixed to the bond in Nehemiah's time, could convert it into a civil bond. If in the one case, the covenanters styled themselves, Noblemen, Barons, Burgesses, and Citizens; in the other, they are styled Princes, as well as Priests and Levites. Secondly, Persons in social, as well as personal covenanting, are to devote all that they are, and have, to God; and among other things, their civil relations; and to engage to serve him by discharging the duties belonging to these relations; so that there must be a propriety in mentioning them. Thirdly, One design of their appearing under these titles, seems to have been to substantiate the national character of the transaction. These were the different classes of society, entitled to represent the nation in the transaction, and to give to it the decided expression of the national will.
Is it still insisted, that even admitting the propriety of national covenanting, these could not be national deeds, since the whole body even of religious society in the nation did not concur in them? This cannot apply to the National Covenant of Scotland. In every light in which it can be viewed, it had the complete expression of the national will. At that period, the great body of the people in Scotland, of all ranks, appeared from choice, under one ecclesiastical banner. They were members of the Church of Scotland. That covenant had all the formality of a Church deed: since it was framed, judicially sanctioned, and authorized to be sworn by the supreme judicatory of the Church. But that sanction also gave it most decidedly a national form, so far as religious society was concerned; since it was the deed of a court which represented the great body of religious society in the nation. Moreover, though it is not pleaded, that the approbation which it received from the Scottish Parliament could add anything to its validity as a Church deed; yet we must insist that it was a decisive proof of its national character; since by their suffrages, it had the expression of the national will, through the civil representatives. We may add, that this covenant was not only approved of, but actually sworn and subscribed on different occasions, by all ranks in the nation, who had a legitimate right to represent it, and to give the national pledge to prosecute the ends of the covenant.
These remarks apply equally to the Solemn League, so far as relates to Scotland. It was not only sanctioned by the Supreme Judicatory of the National Church, but approved by all the public authorities in the country, through which it was practicable to collect the suffrages or express the will of the nation: it was also sworn and subscribed by persons of all ranks in the country, under the express idea of giving the national pledge for the fulfilment of its stipulations, both with regard to God and man. The divided state of religious society in England did not admit of the League receiving the united suffrages of ecclesiastical society, as it had received in Scotland. It is, however, beyond a doubt, that the Presbyterians in that country were unanimous in its favour, that a great proportion of the Independents entered into it, and that a considerable number of Episcopalians, who were friendly to civil liberty and condemned the hierarchy, declared for it. Moreover, if the voice of both Houses of Parliament can be accounted sufficient to express the will of the nation, and to pledge the national faith for promoting civil reformation, and concurring with the Church in carrying on a religious reformation, even in England, that league was decidedly a national deed. Though the state of Ireland was such, that no general approbation of the measure could be expected from the great body of the people, yet it was sworn and subscribed in that country by multitudes, who from their station in society, and their intellectual and moral endowments, were best qualified to judge of what was most conducive to the temporal and spiritual interests of their country.
We shall only add, that if the dissentients in this case had a right to nullify these covenants as national deeds, at least in Scotland and England, there perhaps never was, and never shall be any deed binding upon society. Where shall we find an instance of every individual, who has a right to represent his country in its public deliberations, attending his duty? or should an instance be found, it seldom, if ever happens, that all agree in any one public decision. But in civil matters, the deed of the majority of acting members is accounted the deed of the nation; and, if in itself lawful, must be binding upon the nation in the eye of all law, human and Divine. If it be found that these covenants were in their matter lawful, and with respect to the time when they were entered into, seasonable; then it must be granted, that every individual in the three kingdoms had the call of God to engage in the work. This call was intimated to them in the word, and providentially by the circumstances in which the three kingdoms were placed. This being the case, however men may calculate, yet in the judgment of God, the non-concurrence, and even the dissent of the enemies of the civil and religious liberties of the nation, could not invalidate the solemn pledge of the covenanters, given in the name of their country, to prosecute the work of reformation.
Though we maintain that the obligation of these federal deeds rests to the latest posterity on the nations which entered into them, we must not confine it to those individuals who continue to reside in the country; but extend it to all who do or may yet enjoy the benefit of these federal transactions. They have, under the kind providence of God, been a means of transmitting to us those civil and religious privileges, by which we are distinguished above other nations. From this happy island, if the sins of its inhabitants prevent not, these blessings may spread through the habitable earth; and wherever they are diffused, all who are acquainted with the history of this country, and capable of appreciating their privileges, will feel grateful to our covenanting ancestors; and unless blinded by prejudice, they must find themselves under additional obligation from those vows, by means of which they were put in possession of such invaluable privileges, to hand them down to their posterity; that the generation to come may know them, and sons unborn may declare them to their children.
In conclusion, we may notice—First, That the doctrine which we have attempted to establish, is of the greatest importance, as intimately connected, not merely with the federal deeds of our ancestors, but with the whole scheme of the Divine government, as it respects churches and nations.
We have seen that obligation is a simple idea, and that of all others, the obligation connected with a promise is most easily understood, and most powerfully felt, even by individuals of the meanest capacity. That person who, through want of intellect, cannot be made to understand or feel the obligation of a promise, would, by any court, be pronounced incapable, in any case, of moral responsibility; and if society is incapable of public faith, and of responsibility, in the matter of a social vow to the Most High God, we are warranted to conclude, that in no other instance is it capable of feeling moral obligation. In this case, we need no longer speak of the moral ties which unite society—of the law of nations—of the faith of treaties—of national virtue—of national honour,—and of national justice. If no deed, entered into by a nation, can bind it to God, in vain can we expect nations to give any pledge that will bind them to one another. And if society is incapable of public obligations and moral responsibility, there can be no public sins; for where law does not attach, there can be no transgression. In this case, society may give its sanction to the most horrid crimes, violate the most sacred engagements, and pervert every principle of justice and humanity; and yet be guiltless. But how then are we to “vindicate the ways of God to man?” The history of his government is replete with the most tremendous judgments upon nations and churches, which have not only ruined their prosperity, but terminated their existence. “The indignation of the Lord is upon all nations, and his fury upon all their armies; he hath utterly destroyed them; he hath delivered them to the slaughter.” But how could the justice of God be vindicated in all this, if bodies-corporate were incapable of public faith or moral responsibility? Moreover, God punishes nations, not only for the sins of present, but also for those of former generations; but if nations were incapable, not merely of public, but of permanent obligations, the Divine procedure in this case would be still more inexplicable. We should beware, therefore, how we treat the obligations which attach to mankind in social life. If we break one link in the chain, the whole must give way. The obligation of our covenants being once discarded, you cannot expect to hear any more of national sins, or of the sins of former generations in the Church, as exposing the present generation to the judgments of God. Nor will you be called upon any longer to confess, not only your own sins, but the iniquities of your fathers. Yea, you may expect soon to be told, that you are under no obligation from the deed of your immediate parents, in devoting you to the Lord in baptism. If we give up with one of these moral bonds which unite religious society to God, and to one another, consistency requires that the whole be abandoned.
Secondly, That the doctrine which we have endeavoured to illustrate, as applied to the federal deeds of our ancestors, is of vast importance, on account of its practical tendencies. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the question is still problematical, we can see no great practical evil likely to arise from the belief of it. It would have been the duty and interest of the three kingdoms, to have prosecuted the ends proposed in these covenants, though they had never given their solemn pledge to that effect. But should it be found, as we verily believe to be the case, that they are under obligation from these deeds, the consequences of denying this obligation must be serious, not only to the present, but to future generations. Not to insist on the tendency which such a denial must have to weaken national attachment to civil liberty, and to undermine a powerful motive to diligence in maintaining and promoting religious reformation, it must also tend to harden the generation in their carnal security in reference to the judgments of God, with which we have long been threatened. The defection of nations and Churches from their former attainments in religion and morals, their violation of public engagements to promote the ends of reformation, and their cruel persecution of those who adhere to the cause of God, are crimes against which the heaviest judgments are denounced in his word. But if the Scriptural doctrine respecting the permanent obligation of a religious profession, and vows entered into for maintaining it, do not apply to the reformation cause in this country; the conclusion naturally follows, that the threatenings denounced against the crimes mentioned are equally inapplicable. That such has been the effect of denying or overlooking the obligation of our public vows, is but too evident. The awful defection of these lands from former attainments in reformation, their gross violation of solemn vows come under to be the Lord’s people, and the cruel persecution of the faithful followers of Jesus, are sins which are now confessed and mourned over by few as grounds of the Lord's controversy with these nations. Where now do we hear from the pulpit such a faithful warning as the following, delivered by the judicious Mr. Boston? “The avowed breach of covenants made with God for reformation,—the blood of the Lord’s people shed in fields and on scaffolds, for adhering to the oath of God,—the fining, confining, imprisoning, banishing, and other barbarous usage of them, whereby for many years these nations carried on a war with heaven,—these are an old debt lying on the head of Scotland, England, and Ireland, for which God will pursue them, and pursue them, so that it will appear to be both for principal and interest during the time it has lain over. These things are forgotten, or laughed at now, as what we have no concern in; a stone is rolled to the mouth of the sepulchre where they are supposed to be buried; but God will readily arise, if the stone were sealed, and they forgotten quite and clean, “For when they shall say, Peace and safety, then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child, and they shall not escape.”[1 Thess. v. 3.] What account is now made of the solemn warning emitted by the Associate Synod in the year 1758, in which, after taking notice of God's threatening against Zedekiah, for breaking his oath to the king of Babylon, and of the punishment of Israel for the breach of their oath to the Gibeonites, the Synod proceeds as follows?—“If the Lord takes such account of a vow even in things indifferent; if he claims such interest in an oath sworn, though not unto him; if he so punishes the breach of oaths sworn by his name, even when they were sworn to another party about secular affairs, and so punished the same in remote posterity,–shall we suppose that he will not avenge our horrid violation of those solemn oaths which we came under in the loins of our fathers; oaths which were sworn to him as the great party in matters of highest and most indispensable duty? No, he has given assurance of the contrary. He has denounced concerning such a generation of covenant-breakers, ‘I will break the pride of your power, and I will bring a sword upon you, that shall avenge the quarrel of my covenant.’”
THE Reformation from Popery in this country was posterior to the Reformation on the continent of Europe. Owing to this circumstance, our Reformers, in framing the first Scottish Confession, and books of discipline, had an opportunity of enriching these explanatory standards with whatever was valuable in the confessions, and other formularies of the Reformed Churches abroad. A great number of those who took an active part in framing these documents had resided abroad for several years, and were well acquainted, from personal observation, with the progress of the Reformation in foreign countries. When carrying forward the Reformation in Scotland, they kept up a constant correspondence with Calvin, Beza, and other foreign divines; and in framing the formularies of the Church in their own country, studied not only to imitate, but improve upon the models which they had laid down. The second Reformation was upon a larger scale. It had for its object, not only to bring the churches in Britain and Ireland to the nearest possible uniformity to one another, but also to the reformed churches abroad. Accordingly, the Westminster Divines, in all their statements respecting the doctrine, worship, and discipline of the Church, kept this object in view. They deviated as little as possible from the formularies, and availed themselves of all the Scriptural attainments of these churches; and thus the Westminster standards contain a summary of all that is valuable in the Reformation at home and abroad.—These remarks appeared necessary, to show the unreasonableness of the prejudices entertained by some people against these Standards, and against the Secession Testimony in their defence, from their local nature. The Secession Testimony has, doubtless, a particular bearing upon the state of religion in this country; but viewed as lifted up in defence of the Westminster Standards, it is a Testimony for all the Scriptural attainments of the Protestant Reformation at the time when they were compiled.
We now proceed, as was proposed, to show the importance of a faithful Testimony for the Reformation cause.
First, A Testimony of this description would have been highly expedient, though there had been no defection from that cause. We have already seen that the Reformation was eminently a work of God. This is a sufficient reason why the Church, in every way competent to her, should perpetuate the remembrance of it among men. God is known by his works, as well as by his word. In the word we have a doctrinal delineation of his character, and this is illustrated by the effects of his power, mercy, and faithfulness, in his providential dispensations, particularly towards his Church. The one is the text, the other the comment; and the Church is required to turn the attention of her members to both. For this purpose we find her public teachers, under the former dispensation, were directed by the Spirit of God, to give her a faithful narrative of His appearances for her deliverance and enlargement, in poetical compositions, the more effectually to impress them upon the memory. Of this description were the song of Moses, and the seventy eighth, hundred and fifth, and hundred and sixth Psalms. These the Israelites were not only to consult, but to teach diligently to their children. The design of these historical psalms or hymns is thus explained by the Psalmist. “I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings of old: Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, showing to the generation to come, the praises of the Lord, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done.”[Ps. lxxviii. 2, 3, 4.] It has invariably been found, that when God's merciful appearances for the Church have been forgotten, his laws have also been forsaken. What took place in Israel, after the death of Joshua, has too often been exemplified in the latter ages of the Church: “There arose another generation after them which knew not the Lord, nor yet the works which he had done for Israel; and the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord, and served Baalim.”[Judges, ii. 10, 11.] The present and future generations should reflect with gratitude on the works which God hath wrought for us, in the days of our fathers; but how can they think of them, except they know them, and how can the knowledge of them be so effectually transmitted from age to age, as by an historical Testimony emitted by the judicatories of the Church? Such a Testimony in favour of the Reformation would therefore have been of eminent utility, though there had been no defection from that cause.
Secondly, It has become still more necessary on account of the defection from reformation principles, which has taken place both in the British and Foreign Churches. We apprehend few of the genuine friends of pure and undefiled religion will be disposed to deny the fact, that such a defection both in principle and practice obtains. In some quarters there is a gross departure from Scriptural purity in doctrine and worship; in others from Scriptural government and discipline; and in all from that zeal for God and his cause, which characterized our reforming ancestors. If all the Reformed Churches cannot be charged with gross error in doctrine, or laxness in discipline, which of them has not incurred the charge of leaving first love? But even this defection exposed the Church of Ephesus to the righteous judgments of God. The call of Christ to that Church, and the penal sentence with which it is accompanied, are applicable to all the Protestant Churches: “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent.”[Rev. ii. 5.] This solemn warning, it is the duty of the public functionaries of these Churches, to give ministerially to their people, in every form competent to them. They are bound to do so, not only doctrinally, but judicially, by a faithful Testimony for the Reformation cause, and against the defections from it, in former and present times. How is the Church to know from whence she has fallen, or how is she to make her first works the model of her present conduct, unless she is furnished with a faithful narrative of her former attainments? She is to repent, this duty is enjoined upon her as a permanent body, and has a reference to all her public sins and defections, from the period of her first erection; but in order to this, these sins must be clearly set before her. The departure in principle and practice from the Reformation cause, in this country, therefore, renders a faithful Testimony not only for the reformation principles, but in opposition to every defection from them, highly necessary in the present age; for convincing and reclaiming this generation. This is a Scriptural means of reformation, a means employed under the former dispensation for reclaiming God’s ancient people from their apostacy. All the reformers during that period, employed an historical testimony for that purpose; containing an account of God's kindness to Israel, and of their ingratitude. Of this description was the solemn charge given to that people, by Joshua before his death; Samuel's admonition to them on the occasion of their demanding a king, and after they had chosen Saul to be their governor; the solemn confession of the Priests and Levites in Ezra's time, before they renewed their covenant with God. The individual sets forward in reformation, by thinking, with deep contrition, upon his former conduct: “I thought on my ways and turned my feet unto thy testimonies.” A similar course has marked the reformation of churches and nations. These, as we have seen, are recognised by God as permanent bodies, and it is vain to expect their reformation, till brought to a public acknowledgment of their past sins. But a faithful Testimony against the evils of former and present times, is a means for bringing them to this exercise, and is loudly called for in the present age. Such a Testimony has always tormented the men that dwell upon the earth, but this is no reason why it should be dropped. The faithful followers of Jesus have overcome through the blood of the Lamb, and the word of their testimony, even when called to seal that testimony with their blood.
Thirdly, The judicial maintenance of such a Testimony for the Covenanted Reformation, was the grand object of our Seceding forefathers, in stating a separate communion from the National Church; and is essential to the maintenance of the ecclesiastical constitution, and public profession of the Secession body.
All the evils in that Church from which they seceded, had originated in her departure from the Covenanted Reformation. This defection had commenced so early as the period of the Public Resolutions, which were followed by the submission of the great body of the Church and Nation to Prelacy, upon the restoration of Charles II. to the throne of these kingdoms. For eight and twenty years the friends of the reformation had been subjected to the most cruel persecution. Though the Revolution of 1688 put a stop to the rage of persecution, and saved our country from impending ruin; it was not improved by the Church as it ought to have been, for leading her to return to her covenanted allegiance to the Most High God. In England and Ireland, Prelacy was retained as the established form of Church government, in direct violation of our covenants. Though the Westminster Confession, and the Presbyterial form of government were restored in Scotland, it was not in the way of the Church asserting the powers which she had received from Christ, to dictate her own creed, and determine her own form of government, from the word of God. She received both implicitly as ratified by the Scottish parliament; and thus, in the first meeting of her supreme judicatory at the Revolution, she practically abandoned the grand doctrines of Christ’s sole headship over his church, and her own spiritual independence—doctrines, in defence of which, the best blood of the nation had been shed during the periods of persecution. She employed no adequate means for reviving a Covenanted Reformation, or for obtaining the abolition of many of those laws by which it had been overturned. She made no attempts at renewing our covenants, nor did she even assert their perpetual obligation. These, and other defections, in the settlement of religion at the Revolution, occasioned great grief to the friends of the covenanted cause. Some of them never joined the communion of the Revolution Church. Some ministers, and a great number of private Christians, acceded to her fellowship under a solemn remonstrance against what they reckoned defective in her constitution. Others joined these from time to time in a doctrinal testimony for the Reformation cause, and against the many defections from it. These worthy persons still considered themselves the sons of the covenanted church, though, for the present, situated like captives in a strange land. They ardently desired to return to the state of matters under the Second Reformation; but they wished, if possible, to bring their brethren, with whom they were in active fellowship, along with them. This was one principal object of all their contendings, while they continued within the pale of the National Church. The rapid increase of error and defection in that church, however, soon left the friends of the covenanted cause no hope of attaining that object; on the contrary, they found themselves constrained to secede from her corrupt administration, for the defence of even the fundamental doctrines and laws of Christianity. Had these evils not existed, or had the first Seceders been permitted, within her pale, to give a faithful doctrinal testimony for the Covenanted Reformation, they declared they would have remained in her communion in the mean time; still expecting that she would resume her former position as a covenanted church; but since she was bent on backsliding, and refused to be reclaimed, they had no alternative but to leave her fellowship, and, in a state of secession, to take up that cause which she had abandoned.
This was the amount of all the pleadings of the first seceding ministers with the National Church, during the period that the process respecting them was before the Courts. They are greatly mistaken who allege, that the departure of the National Church from an avowed adherence to our covenants, formed no part of the grounds of their Secession, but was only taken up afterwards to strengthen their cause. It was brought forward from the beginning, not only as a great defection in itself, but as tending to all her other defections from former attainments in reformation. The moment they declared their Secession from the judicatories of the Revolution Church, they avowed their accession to the covenanted Church of Scotland, and took up the great public cause as maintained by her during the reforming periods. This is evident, First, From the protest given in to the Commission by the four brethren in the year 1733. After declaring their adherence to a former protestation, and asserting the validity of the relation between them and their respective congregations, notwithstanding the sentence of deposition passed upon them, they add, “And likewise we protest, that notwithstanding our being cast out from ministerial communion with the Established Church of Scotland, we still hold communion with all and every one who desire, with us, to adhere to the principles of the true Presbyterian and Covenanted Church of Scotland, in her doctrine, worship, government, and discipline.” And again, “We do, for these and many other weighty reasons, to be laid open in due time, protest, that we are obliged to make a secession from them, and that we can have no ministerial communion with them, till they see their sins and mistakes, and amend them. And, in like manner, we do protest that it shall be lawful and warrantable for us to exercise the keys of doctrine, discipline, and government, according to the word of God, the Confession of Faith, and the principles and constitution of the Covenanted Church of Scotland, as if no such censure had been passed upon us.” Secondly, From the act of Declinature in the year 1737, in which they decline the authority of the judicatories of the National Church, for the following, among other reasons: “That in regard the present judicatories cannot be competent judges in a testimony for the reformed and covenanted principles of the Church of Scotland, from which they have so deeply swerved, by so many lamentable defections from the same.” With regard to the grand object of their own association, they declare in the same deed: “The members of this presbytery have been, and are endeavouring, through the strength, conduct, and leading of Divine grace, to display and prosecute the ends of a judicial Testimony for the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of the Church of Scotland, and against several steps of defection from the same, both in former and present times; to which Testimony both ministers, and people of all ranks in this covenanted land, are, by the solemn oath of God, bound to adhere.” Thirdly, That the Associate Presbytery, in their constitution, identified themselves with the covenanted Church of Scotland, is still more evident from their judicial Testimony, which contains a more full development of their constitution; and is a Testimony for the Reformation, under the express idea of its being a Covenanted Reformation. This appears both from its title and its contents. It is entitled an “Act, Declaration, and Testimony, for the doctrine, worship, government, and discipline of the Church of Scotland, agreeable to the word of God, the Confession of Faith, the National Covenant of Scotland, and the Solemn League and Covenant of the three Nations.” In this judicial deed they assert the perpetual obligation of the National Covenant of Scotland, and the Solemn League and Covenant of the three Nations upon all ranks in these lands: declare their approbation of the several steps of reformation, between the years 1560 and 1590, and between the years 1638 and 1650; and condemn the several steps of defection from that Reformation, from the period of the public resolutions down to the time of the Secession. Fourthly, Their adherence to the great cause of the Covenanted Reformation also appears from their attempts to revive it by their act in 1743, for renewing our covenants in a bond suited to their circumstances, and their actual procedure in that work. We shall only add, that in their formulary, all those who were admitted to office were required, not only to declare their adherence to the Reformation standards, but to avow their belief of the obligation of those covenants entered into for promoting and maintaining the Reformation cause, and to engage that they would pursue no divisive course from the reformed and covenanted Church of Scotland. “Do you own and acknowledge the perpetual obligation of the National Covenant, frequently sworn and subscribed by persons of all ranks in this kingdom, &c.? Do you likewise own and acknowledge the perpetual obligation of the Solemn League and Covenant for maintaining and carrying on a work of reformation in the three kingdoms, &c.? Question 6th, Do you promise that you will maintain the spiritual unity and peace of, and that you will follow no divisive course from, the reformed and covenanted Church of Scotland, either by falling in with the defections of the times, or by giving yourself up to a detestable indifferency and neutrality in the foresaid covenanted cause; and this you promise through grace, notwithstanding of whatever trouble or persecution you may meet with in essaying the faithful discharge of your duty therein.”
We have been the more full in these statements, as the greater part of the controversies which have taken place in the Secession have originated in a mistake about the great cause in support of which the Secession Church was constituted. It was not in support of any former attainments of the Revolution Church in Scotland, unless in so far as she adhered to the Westminster Confession and Presbyterial government; for the Associate Presbytery expressly testified against her settlement at the Revolution; but it was in support of the public cause of religion as maintained by the reformed and covenanted Church in Scotland, particularly at the Second Reformation, and of that cause as ratified by solemn vows to the Most High God. That mistake again has evidently arisen from confounding the immediate reasons of secession, and the cause in support of which they appeared as an ecclesiastical body, having made that secession. The immediate grounds of secession, we admit, were the defections from her own avowed principles with which the Revolution Church, in respect of administration, was chargeable; but the cause they espoused was a cause that she had in a great measure abandoned, even at the Revolution settlement,—the great public cause of Scotland's Covenanted Reformation, which had been transmitted to them under the oath of their reforming ancestors, and sealed by their blood, and which they considered themselves bound to transmit, under the same bond, to their posterity to the latest ages. In so far as this cause is abandoned by the Secession body in the present day, it is evident that they have deserted their original principles, and violated the constitution of the Secession Church.
Fourthly, While the Secession Church should renounce none of her former engagements, and abandon none of her former attainments, she is bound, in prosecuting the ends of her testimony for the Reformation, to carry it down to the present times.
Since the Judicial Testimony was published, these lands have departed farther in principle and practice from the Reformation cause. New errors have been vented, or old errors revived in the National Church, which have either been overlooked, or passed over without adequate censure. A number of other denominations have sprung up in the country since that time, with whom Seceders, from their ecclesiastical constitution, or mode of administration, cannot hold fellowship; and the Secession Church is bound to state to them the reason of it, for their instruction, and her own exoneration. Since that period also, Popery, the great evil abjured in our covenants, has made rapid progress in these kingdoms. Moreover, there is a dreadful increase of practical evils of all kinds among all ranks. These are strong reasons why the church should carry forward her testimony to the present times. These reasons were powerfully felt by the General Associate Synod nearly thirty years ago. When the matter came under discussion, they found that it was necessary, in order to make their testimony bear upon present times, either to extend the Judicial Act emitted by the Associate Presbytery, or to give a new exhibition of their principles. The last mentioned plan was adopted, and the result was, the enactment and publication, in the year 1804, of the Narrative and Testimony. Under this public banner, the General Associate Synod appeared till the late Union. The same statement of principles is still held by those belonging to that religious body, who could not enter the Union along with their brethren, and who are now formed into a court, under the designation of the Associate Synod. In resuming the exercise of their judicial powers, however, they have declared their earnest wish to be connected in religious fellowship with all the friends of the Covenanted Reformation, under the banner of any testimony that shall be found to secure a decided and effective appearance for the Reformation cause. They are, from principle, the friends of union. The vows of their fathers, and their own covenant and ordination vows, lay them under strong obligations to cultivate union in the truth with all who love the Lord Jesus. But they cannot see it to be their duty to violate the connection which they, as Seceders, already have with the Reformed and Covenanted Church of Scotland, by acceding to any basis of union in which her principles, and the perpetual obligation of her public vows, are not fully recognised. They are, however, far from thinking that the friends of the Reformation cause are confined to their own body, and they have earnestly solicited their co-operation, to whatever denomination they may belong, that means may be devised, for uniting them under one public banner in defence of the reformation interests.
Fifthly, A testimony for the Covenanted Reformation cannot, in our humble opinion, be either effective or consistent, unless it be made a term of Christian as well as ministerial fellowship. A church in a state of secession or separation from other churches, cannot be regularly constituted without a testimony, containing the reasons of her secession, and an exhibition of the cause in support of which she is associated. The Christian religion tends to union. It is designed to unite men to God, and to one another, in the sacred bond of peace. It prohibits division except upon weighty grounds; and when separation becomes necessary, the separating party are bound to assign to the world, the reasons of their taking that step; first, to vindicate themselves from the charge of schism; secondly, as a means of reclaiming those from whom they have separated. If their separation be warrantable, the Church from which they have separated must be in a state of defection. The following rule applies to societies as well as to individuals. “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart, but shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbour, and not suffer sin upon him.” But have not the people in the Secession a call as well as their ministers, to vindicate their conduct from the charge of schism, and are they not also bound in their station, to employ every means competent to them, for reclaiming those who oppose the truth? And how can they do this in their public and joint capacity, unless associated under the Public Testimony of the Church, as a term of religious fellowship? Farther, the Testimony of the Church must be a part of her public profession, and in the case of a Secession Church, it is supposed to contain an exhibition of her distinguishing principles. This has always been understood to be the case with respect to the Secession Testimony in Scotland. But we know of no warrant from Scripture for the Church representative having a profession distinct from that of the Church diffusive: and as really as the former is bound to declare to the latter the whole counsel of God, the latter is bound to believe it with the heart, and to confess it with the mouth. We grant that those in public office, when required, should give some additional pledge of fidelity to the constitution and laws of the Church; but this is a rule of office not of public profession; or at least it respects not the matter, but simply the form of that profession. But if the public Testimony of the Church belong to the profession of the Church, it should be a term of her religious fellowship, for that fellowship is a fellowship in the faith and profession of the Gospel. Nor would it alter the case, though the term fellowship were restricted to sealing ordinances, for these reduplicate upon the whole profession of that Church in which they are dispensed. Moreover the Testimony of the Church should contain a pointed condemnation of practical evils, and be employed as a rule in her administration of discipline; but it cannot be effectually applied in this way, unless it be a term of religious fellowship in the body. The very nature of society implies that those who are admitted to its privileges should accede to its laws and regulations. Were this not the case, the society could have no control over them, however destructive their conduct might be to its interests. However pointed any Testimony emitted by the Church may be, in condemning the prevailing evils of the times, it cannot be effective for maintaining purity in her communion, unless it be made a term of religious fellowship; for in no other way can it be brought into operation, in her administration for suppressing vice, even among her own members. Finally, the Testimony of the Church is to be lifted up and maintained, in the defence of the truths and cause of the Redeemer; but are the private members of the Church to take no part in this work? They, as well as their rulers, are God’s witnesses; they must therefore, have a right to be associated with them in the maintenance of the Testimony of the Church for his truths and cause. “The faith” was delivered to the saints in private as well as in public station, as a sacred trust, for the preservation of which, all in their proper sphere, “are earnestly to contend.” They are to do this jointly; “to strive together for the faith of the gospel.” But to deny them a share with their rulers, in the public maintenance of the Testimony of the Church, in defence of the cause of religion, is to deprive them of one principal means of discharging the important trust committed to them by the Head of the Church. “The various representations given of the Church in Scripture,” (says the General Associate Synod, in the introduction to the Narrative and Testimony), “clearly denote that this is the duty of all her members. She is compared to an army with banners. But surely that army, which fights under the Captain of our salvation, is composed of private Christians as well as those in office: Therefore it must be the duty of the former as well as of the latter, to contend for his interests in every way competent to their station. The Church appears as a great multitude with the Lamb, upon mount Zion, ‘having his Father’s name upon their foreheads. This being a representation of the Church, as maintaining an open profession of the truth by which God hath made himself known, nothing can be more evident, than that such a profession is required of every Church-member. The Church is also called ‘the remnant of the woman’s seed, who keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ.’ But this remnant, undoubtedly, includes private members as well as ministers.”
This honour has not been conferred upon the members of the Church in vain. In times of severe trial, a standard for truth has sometimes been supported by them with great effect, when deserted by those in public office. It is probable that the number of the former will be found to be greater in proportion than that of the latter, in that company of which it is said, “They overcame by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their Testimony, and they loved not their lives unto the death.” The Christian people in Scotland have, in former times, distinguished themselves by their holy zeal, and Christian patriotism. It was by their active co-operation with their ministers, that the Reformation was begun, advanced, and carried to a high degree of perfection. Their exertions were no less efficacious for preserving the Reformation cause in this country, when hell and earth had combined for its destruction. The banner was successfully upheld by them, in the times of persecution, even when bereaved of their pastors; and many of them shed their blood in the good cause, with a Christian heroism, which filled even their persecutors with astonishment. They too, were among the first to unfurl the banner for Scotland's Reformation, at the time of the Secession. Their humble Testimony preceded any decisive steps taken by those in the ministry, to stem the torrent of corruption coming in upon the Church and nation; and contributed in no small degree, to the success of the judicial appearance afterwards made by the Associate Presbytery, in defence of the Covenanted Reformation. And we should be sorry to see the Christian people excluded from appearing in their proper station, in support of any Testimony lifted up, or which may yet appear, in any part of the Secession Church, in behalf of the Reformation; which must be the case, if it is not made a term of Christian, as well as ministerial communion.
Christian reader, the cause which we have been pleading, though now generally deserted, has been the glory of your country, once deservedly called Beulah, a land in covenant with God. This is a cause which was supported by a chosen race of Christian patriots, in the times of Reformation; who, for talent, learning, and piety, were never surpassed in any nation. It is a cause to which this generation, however backward to acknowledge it, owes under Providence all that is really valuable in their lot, whether as Christians or as citizens. It is a cause which has been transmitted to you under the sanction of the oath, and ratified by the blood of your fathers. It is a cause which, by your own personal act, you may have espoused and come under the most solemn engagements to leave as an inheritance to your children. It is a cause which our fathers maintained at the peril of their lives, “even women were tortured, not accepting deliverance;” yet in the land of peace, the great body of this generation have become weary of it. Among the many sons whom the covenanted Church of Scotland hath brought up, there are now few to guide her, or take her by the hand. Many are yet enjoying the fruits of her maternal care, to transmit a goodly heritage to her children; but, alas ! there seems to be a general combination to get rid of that deed of entail, which she executed, and which had evidently the seal of Heaven, to secure the transmission of that inheritance unimpaired to the latest ages. But in that deed, the great God himself was a party; and though it should be rescinded by parliaments, burnt by the public executioner, and consigned to oblivion by ecclesiastical courts, this Church and land cannot get rid of its obligation. God is long-suffering and slow to wrath; but you must not on that account think that he has forgotten the violated vows of your country. He who keeps truth for ever, abhors perfidy in nations and churches, as well as individuals; and he will, in his own time, appear to avenge the quarrel of his covenant. But who shall abide the day of his coming? “Thus saith the Lord, I will give the men who have transgressed my covenant, which have not performed the words of the covenant, which they had made before me, and I will even give them into the hand of their enemies, and into the hand of them that seek their life; and their dead bodies shall be for meat unto the fowls of the heaven, and to the beasts of the earth.”[Jer. xxxiv. 17, 18, 20.] By inviting you whoever you are, and to whatever denomination of Christians you belong, to come forward and avow your adherence to the Covenanted cause of your country, we call upon you to consult your own safety. When God makes inquisition for blood, he remembers those who are faithful to his cause. Those who keep the word of his patience, he will keep in the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world to try them that dwell upon the earth.
We cannot conclude this Plea, without a few words to those who are still by public profession, the warm friends of a Covenanted Reformation. It is matter of deep regret that they should still be found arranged under separate banners. Certain differences of statement may exist, but why are not means employed to get these removed, by friendly and deliberate discussion? This is the way to follow up the grand design of the Solemn League. The differences which exist among the avowed friends of the covenanted cause in Scotland, are certainly not of equal magnitude with those which existed among them who engaged in the Solemn League in the days of our fathers; and their confederation.at that time for the purposes of reformation and union, was attended with the happiest results. And we despair of seeing any comfortable and permanent union among the friends of Jesus, till that plan be resorted to anew, in a way suited to our circumstances. It is in this way by uniting them to himself, and to one anothor, in solemn covenant, God has promised to gather together his scattered heritage. “In those days and at that time, saith the Lord, the children of Israel shall come, they and the children of Judah together, going and weeping; they shall go and seek the Lord their God. They shall ask the way to Zion with their faces thitherward, saying, Come and let us join ourselves unto the Lord in a perpetual covenant that shall not be forgotten.”[Chap. l. 4, 5.]
WE are aware that many deny the necessity of public creeds or confessions altogether, and that some who favour them may be disposed to consider what has been said in vindication of the Westminster Confession as superfluous, and that it would be better to abandon it altogether, and adopt some other scheme of principles more adapted to the taste and views of the present age. It may be proper, therefore, by way of supplement to the foregoing Treatise, to vindicate the warrantableness of public creeds, and to assign some reasons why the Westminster Confession should be retained as the public confession of the Church in these lands, and particularly by Seceders, in preference to any other form of sound words, or scheme of principles.
All those to whom the word of God comes, are bound by the highest authority to believe it. This will be granted by all who admit its Divine origin. But it is no less evident that the belief of the truth is to be followed up by a public and joint profession of it; “With the heart man believeth unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”[Rom. x. 10.] The Scriptures also plainly teach, that the church is a society formed upon a public and joint profession of the doctrines and laws of supernatural revelation; and as that revelation is one, so all the members of the church should have one faith, and one profession; “Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling. One Lord, one faith, one baptism.”[Eph. iv. 3—5.] Her members are enjoined not only to be one in sentiment about the matters of God, but also in their public profession to speak the same things; “I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you: but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”[1 Cor. i. 10.] Without unity in sentiment, there can be no comfortable or profitable fellowship among the members of the church. “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?”[Amos iii. 3.] To ascertain this coincidence of sentiment among the members of the church, there must be some declaration of principles, to which all who seek admission to her fellowship are required to accede. We are told, by the enemies of public creeds, that no more is necessary to ascertain the unity pleaded for but a simple declaration of adherence to the Scriptures. Experience, however, has taught us that this is insufficient, since all denominations of professed Christians profess to receive the Scriptures as the rule of their faith, though they differ widely from one another about their fundamental doctrines. In this case, Arians, Socinians, Arminians, and Calvinists, might be comprehended in the same Church, and might all sit down at the same communion table; for they all profess to receive the Scriptures as the rule of their faith and practice. This shows the necessity of some explanatory standard, as the basis of her unity, and a term of her religious fellowship, containing a declaration of the sense in which the church understands the sacred oracles.
The limits which we have prescribed to ourselves, will not admit of our entering at large upon the objections which have been advanced against public creeds; they must not, however, be entirely overlooked, especially at a time like this, when every method is tried to bring confessions of faith into disrepute.
First, It has been said, “that they tend to weaken a sense of the authority and perfection of the Scriptures, the only rule of faith and practice.” They have no such tendency, but the contrary. They do not proceed upon any supposed insufficiency of Scripture, either as a rule of faith or manners, but upon the well known propensity of man to pervert and misapply its meaning; and so far from weakening its authority, they are calculated to vindicate its doctrines and laws from the false constructions which have been put upon them by men of corrupt minds. They were never meant to interfere with the exclusive authority of Scripture as the rule of faith and practice. They have uniformly been received and acted upon by Protestants, not as the rule of their faith, but as the form of their Christian profession; not as supreme, but only as subordinate and explanatory standards.
Secondly, It has also been objected, “that they suppose that men may express the truths of God with more precision than he has done himself.” This objection, if it have any force at all, would apply equally to the ordinance of preaching, and every other mode of religious instruction. One design of preaching is to methodise, illustrate, and explain, the doctrines and laws of inspiration, so as to bring them, as much as possible, to the level of the capacity of the generality of mankind. But who ever supposed that this tends to impeach the perfection of the words of the Holy Spirit? Even private Christians are commanded to search the Scriptures in order to discover their meaning, but this does not suppose that the language of Scripture is undefined or inaccurate, but only that every word of God is a great deep. We suppose that the enemies of public creeds are not yet prepared to discard the ordinance of preaching as a human invention, or to inhibit men from searching the Scriptures, and by comparing one part with another to find out their meaning; but they might do so upon the same principle on which they condemn public Confessions. We shall only add, that notwithstanding the abhorrence which some have of public creeds, they find themselves obliged to have recourse to what is equivalent to them. “Against public articles of faith,” says a judicious writer, “many Christians are strongly prepossessed. The prejudice, however, is more against the name than against the thing. Every Church has certain religious principles for the basis of its union. It has its discriminative persuasion expressed in one manner or other, and more or less exactly understood by its members. What has brought them together, and what retains them in fellowship, but coincidence of religious sentiments? How is this coincidence discovered, but by mutual explanations? Who knows not that the common persuasion of the church is often as rigorously applied in the admission and exclusion of members, among those who condemn creeds and confessions in name, as among those who maintain their utility.”
“Since every Church then has its own system of acknowledged principles, it appears unreasonable to condemn an expedient of which the object is merely to ascertain them with the utmost possible precision, and to exhibit them with the utmost possible publicity.”
In conclusion, we may assign some reasons, why the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, in preference to any other scheme of principles, should be retained as the public Confession of the Church at the present time. We are far from considering the Westminster Divines as infallible, nor would we deny, that a summary of principles equally Scriptural might be drawn up by others. On the contrary, we are ready to grant that another might be substituted, if not more complete, at least, in a more modern style. But for retaining it there are weighty reasons, which more than counterbalance all its real or supposed defects.
First, It contains all that is valuable in principle in the Reformation, both at home and abroad. It was framed, as we have seen, posterior to the Confessions of the other Reformed Churches, and its compilers made it their study to comprise in it all their valuable contents. Moreover, one grand object they had in view, was to bring the Churches of Britain and Ireland to the nearest possible conformity to one another, and to the Reformed Churches abroad. Accordingly, in all their statements concerning the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of the Church, they kept this object in view, not only by availing themselves of their attainments, but by deviating as little as possible from the manner in which Divine truths were stated in the Formularies of these Churches. By retaining this Confession, therefore, as the Confession of our faith, we adhere to the whole Reformation cause, so far as doctrine is concerned, and continue to embrace in our religious profession, every thing valuable in principle, in the Reformation at home and abroad.
Secondly, it is the Confession to which all ranks in these lands are bound to adhere as a part of their Covenanted uniformity. This Confession was framed in carrying into effect one principal object of the Solemn League, which was to bring the Churches in the three kingdoms to the nearest possible uniformity, in doctrine, worship, discipline, and government. Moreover, it was actually received, and solemnly recognized by the parties concerned in that federal deed, as their doctrinal standard of uniformity, to which they were bound to adhere by the oath of God. To abandon this Confession, therefore, in principle at least, so long as it cannot be shown to be unscriptural, would be to incur the charge of covenant violation. We do not insist that the design of that League would be defeated by a mere change of statement, if the principles in the Westminster Confession were retained, provided the change of statement had that concurrence of all the Churches in Britain and Ireland, which gave their sanction to that Confession. But till this is obtained, the safest way to preserve the public faith inviolate, is to adhere to it not only in the spirit, but also in the letter of it.
Thirdly, It is a Confession to which the Churches in Britain and Ireland are not only bound to adhere by solemn covenant, but it is also the basis on which there is a great probability that they will unite, when the Lord brings again Zion. Though the greater part of these Churches have never fully redeemed the pledge given by them in the Solemn League, to cleave to the Westminster Standards, as standards of uniformity to the three nations; it does not free any of them from their solemn engagements. The friends of these standards are still bound to hold them fast, and to display them as a banner to the generation, in order to remind them of their first love, and of their first works. Nor are they left without hope that the great object of the Westminster Confession, as a standard of uniformity, will ultimately be gained. However far even the Presbyterian Churches in Britain and Ireland may have departed in administration from that Confession, it is still recognised by them in some form or other, as an explanatory standard. It seems therefore to be reserved in the providence of God as a central point, in which all the scattered sections of the Church in these lands will meet, when times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.
Fourthly, It was the Confession of the Church of Scotland in her purest times, and continues still to be the avowed creed of the Established Church. This is meant as a reason why this Confession should be retained by Seceders in particular. They are Seceders from the corrupt administration of the Church of Scotland, and not Dissenters from the constitution and explanatory standards of that Church. Our seceding fathers, in leaving the communion of the Established Church, still adhered to her standards. Their Testimony was lifted up in the defence of these standards, and in condemnation of the many defections from them in administration, in the Establishment. Moreover, they declared their readiness to return to her fellowship, as soon as the grounds of their Secession were removed. We must therefore adhere to the Westminster Confession, in order to maintain our character as Seceders, and to vindicate our principles and conduct from the charge of sectarianism.
Fifthly, This Confession must be adhered to by Seceders, in order to prosecute the grand object of the Secession. The Secession was not intended for the destruction of the Church of Scotland, but as a means of her reformation, or to bring her back in administration to her own avowed Standards, as these were held and acted upon by her in her purest times. Our Seceding fathers, along with others, had exerted themselves within her pale to accomplish this end; and had continued, perhaps, to do so, had they in the first instance been allowed ministerial freedom in testifying against her defections. This being denied, they had no other way left for prosecuting this object but by leaving her communion, and, in a state of secession, appearing in defence of her standards, and in the way of condemning her defections from them. The avowed object of the Testimony emitted by them was to bring her back to her covenanted principles as held by her at the period of the second Reformation. This appears from its very title. It is “A Testimony for the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government of the Church of Scotland: according to the word of God, the Confession of Faith, the National Covenant of Scotland, and the Solemn League and Covenant of the three nations.” The moment we desert the Confession, and the other Westminster standards, either in matter, or in form, as standards of covenanted uniformity, we abandon the avowed objects of the Secession, which were, the defence of the Covenanted Reformation, and to bring back the Church of Scotland to her Covenanted principles.
 “The manner in which the covenant was enjoined to be taken in Scotland, under all civil pains, has not been approved by Seceders in any of their public papers. Private writers of their connection, who have vindicated the injunction clause, have not considered it as extending beyond exclusion from places of power and trust. Whatever may be the legal import of the phrase, I believe this interpretation accords with the fact; and so far as I know, it cannot be shown, that, with the approbation and consent of the Public Authorities, the covenant was forced upon any, or that the loss of liberty, or of goods, was incurred by them for simply refusing it.”—Dr M‘Crie’s Appendix to Sermons on Union.
 Dr M‘Crie’s Appendix.
 “The justice of such a procedure every thinking person will acknowledge, who considers that sins committed by men as constituting a body-politic, can only be punished in the present life; the proper punishment of national sins being national judgments, even such judgments as dissolve the transgressing state. And these the providence of God thinks necessary for its own vindication, always inflicting them upon nations when the measure fixed upon by God for punishment is filled up, that the wrath of God being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, the nations of the world may be awed and kept in subjection to the government of God.”—Macknight’s Harmony, vol. ii. p. 252.
 In confirmation of the above view of the word, the reader may be referred to Schleusner, who, in his third sense, renders it, “I bind myself by oath to any one.”
 Grahame on Public Vows.
 Dr. Ferrier’s Discourses.