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James Dodson

A JUST and adequate view of this subject cannot be obtained without attention to the proper nature and design of the Secession-Testimony. Those ministers who left the communion of the established church, and formed the religious body known by the name of the Secession, entertained no new or peculiar principles, different from those which were contained in the Standards of the Church of Scotland. With these they were fully satisfied; and complained of deviations from them by the national judicatories, in a course of managements during a number of years. When they found themselves obliged to declare a secession from these judicatories, they composed no new standards nor did they ever intend their Testimony to occupy this place. It was a seasonable appearance in behalf of the doctrines contained in these standards, in opposition to various defections and errors inconsistent with them. It approved of, adopted, and witnessed for them, in the most ample and unexceptionable manner, as they had been received and owned by the reformed church in this land. On this account they justly viewed themselves as a part of the reformed church of Scotland, and as distinguished from other parties who had objections against her reformed constitution and standards.

Another remark which, in connection with what has just been mentioned, and entitled to particular notice is, that the Secession-Testimony was properly and formally a testimony for the reformed profession of the Church of Scotland. It as not a declaration of adherence to certain truths, and of opposition to certain errors, simply on the general ground of their being agreeable or contrary to the Scriptures the supreme standard; but it was also a testimony to these truths, as pertaining to the attained and fixed profession of this church, and against errors, as contrary unto and departures from it. This view of it is not taken from any general declaration, nor does it arise from the mere coincidence of the matter contained in the testimony with what is in the Confession and other standards; but it is the formal and specific nature of that testimony. Of this its title is sufficiently expressive: it is called ‘Act, Declaration, and Testimony, for the Doctrine, Worship, Discipline and Government 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; and against several Steps of Defection from the same, both in former and present times.’ To this title it will be found to agree in its whole form and contents. It asserts and testifies for the various truths, as agreeable to the Word of God and also to the Subordinate Standards. Take for an example the first Article in the Assertory part. The Presbytery did and hereby do acknowledge, declare, and assert, that the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence, without the aid of tradition or revelation, shew that there is a God, who hath Lordship and Sovereignty over all; as also, that thereby his wisdom, power, and goodness are so far manifested, that all men are left inexcusable; According to the doctrine held forth from the word of God in our Confession of Faith, Chap. i. sec. 1. And they hereby reject and condemn all contrary principles and tenets, that are maintained by Mr. Campbell, the Socinians, and others. Again in Article VII. ‘Also they acknowledge, declare, and assert, that the light of nature is not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and of his will which is necessary to salvation, &c., according to Confession, Chap. i. x. sec. 1. Larger Catechism, Quest. 60; and they condemn all Socinian or other tenets inconsistent therewith in the foresaid Catechism Revised, and particularly Mr. Simson’s erroneous doctrine,’ &c.[1] In like manner do they testify against errors in the Condemnatory part of the testimony, as contrary to the word of God and our subordinate standards; producing passages from the latter under every article, and summing up the different heads in a manner similar to the following: ‘This Presbytery considering that the purity of doctrine maintained in this church is very much endangered, by the above gross and pernicious errors.—Therefore they did and hereby do, upon the weighty grounds and reasons above narrated, CONDEMN, as contrary to the word of God, our Confessions and Catechisms, the several propositions above mentioned; maintained and defended by Mr. Simson, viz.’ &c.[2]

This view of the nature and design of the Secession-Testimony is agreeable to the express words of Mr. Wilson, who had a principal hand in compiling that testimony, as appears from the following among many other passages which might have been produced from his excellent Defence. ‘In the Act and Testimony of the Associate Presbytery, our received standards of doctrine, worship, government and discipline are particularly applied and laid against the errors that have sprung up in this church, and against such corruptions and defections as have taken place therein; by which our subordinate standards have been either obscured or perverted as to their genuine sense and meaning, and by which also palpable deviations have been made from them. Hence in the assertory part of the Act and Testimony, the truths asserted are viewed as agreeable to the word of God, the supreme standard, and also as agreeable to our subordinate standards. Again, in the condemnatory part of the Act and Testimony, the errors, corruptions, or defections condemned are viewed as contrary to the word of God and our subordinate standards, received and adopted by this church, in her reforming periods. Therefore the Act and Testimony of the Associate Presbytery is not a new standard of church-communion; far less is it to be equalled with our received standards; but it is an application and declaration of their genuine sense and meaning, in opposition to the errors, defections, and corruptions that have prevailed both in former and present times.’ And he adds with respect to the members of the Associate Presbytery, and all who had acceded to their testimony; ‘they make no other confession but what has been made by this church in her reforming and covenanting times; they make no other confession but what this whole church and land are obliged by the word and oath of God to make, and which this national church, as she goes under the name of the established church, doth refuse to make.’[3]

Such is the nature and design of the original Secession-Testimony; unto which all the other public papers, formerly in authority, corresponded. Let us now attend to the New Testimony substituted in its room by the General Synod. A little consideration will shew that it is of a very different kind. It is intitled, ‘Narrative and Testimony agreed upon and enacted by the General Associate Synod.’ The former of these is more particularly styled, ‘A Narrative of the State of Religion in Britain and Ireland from the period of the Reformation to the present time.’ Of the nature and design of this narrative, we shall speak more particularly afterwards. To both there is prefixed, ‘an Introduction,’ at the close of which the Synod state ‘the sense in which’ they ‘adhere to several parts of the Reformation formerly attained;’ and in this is included the sense in which they adhere to the Confession of Faith and Catechisms.[4] These paragraphs, which are chiefly taken up in declaring the sense in which the Synod do not adhere to these standards, shall be considered in a little. In the mean time, it may be remarked, that the approbation and adherence to the Confession, &c. qualified as it is, is not inserted in, and forms no part of ‘the Testimony itself,’ of that Testimony, unto the doctrines of which alone persons are required to ‘express an adherence’ when admitted to communion.[5]—The express approbation and adoption of the Confession of Faith as the confession of our faith, and of the other subordinate standards, and pieces of reformation, may be seen in the bosom of the former testimony in the sixth article of the assertory part.[6]

‘The Testimony itself,’ or, as it is otherwise denominated, ‘the Testimony properly so called,’ is evidently very different from the original Secession-Testimony. The last mentioned, we have seen, was formally and specifically a testimony for the religious profession of the reformed church of Scotland, or for the true religion, as attained by and fixed in that church. The New Testimony is drawn up upon the principle that the church’s testimony ought to be taken immediately from the Scriptures, without a reference to the attainments of former times, an opinion repeatedly pleaded for by its compilers, and evidently acted upon in the present instance. Accordingly, the doctrines asserted in it are asserted simply as agreeable, and the doctrines condemned as contrary, to the word of God, without viewing them in their reference to the Confession of Faith and other subordinate standards, and even without mentioning any of these, except perhaps in an incidental way in an instance or two.—Besides, it contains (as we shall afterwards see) doctrines that are contradictory to those of the Confession of Faith, and which were never received into the Confession, or terms of communion of this or any other Presbyterian church, in all these respects it is different from the original testimony of Seceders, and cannot be looked upon as a testimony for the doctrine, &c. of the church of Scotland, in any other sense than as it may contain materially the same truths in most instances with our Confession and Catechisms; which is true as to the confessions or declared principles of different religious bodies, and even those of Independent persuasions.

Another general view of the difference between the original profession of Seceders and that now adopted by the Synod, may be taken from the formulas of questions put to those who are to be admitted to public office.[7] In the original formula an unlimited and unqualified approbation of the different subordinate standards of the Reformed Church of Scotland, and of the obligation of the National Covenants, is required. Its compilers never thought of qualifying or limiting them by their testimony; and for this good reason, because they did not suppose or believe that their was any inconsistency between them: the Testimony was ‘an application and declaration of their genuine sense and meaning.’ But in the New Formula the approbation of these standards is limited, being in so far only as they agree with the New Testimony. Of the same kind is the approbation required respecting all the former acts and papers of the Secession, which are referred to in the New Formula. See Questions II. III. IV. XI. XII. That doctrine, inconsistent with all of the public deeds there mentioned, is contained in the New Testimony, shall afterwards be shewn; in the mean time, this is apparent from the studied and careful qualifications with which they are all received.

More particularly, in Quest. II. the Westminster confession (the whole doctrine of which as it was received by an act of Assembly 1647, the candidate formerly declared his sincere belief of, and acknowledged as the confession of his faith), together with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms, are now only approved ‘agreeably to the declaration in the Narrative and Testimony enacted by the General Associate Synod in the year 1804;’ i.e. ‘in so far only as they agree with’ the Narrative and Testimony. In Quest. II not only the second Book of Discipline, which was sworn to in the National and Solemn League, but also the Propositions concerning Church-government, agreed to as one principle part of the uniformity between the three kingdoms, sworn in the Solemn League, is omitted and thrown out, so that there is no subordinate standard referred to as determining or fixing this matter; which deficiency is but ill supplied by the meagre account of church-government in the New Testimony. In Quest. IV. the acknowledgment of the obligation of the National Covenant and the Solemn League is qualified by the words ‘according to the Declaration made in the foresaid Narative and Testimony;’ which testimony acknowledges their obligations with limitations,’ and in various respects enervates and explains away their matter, form, and extent of obligation. It is also to be observed, that in the Old Formula the obligation of the Solemn League was acknowledged, ‘particularly as renewed in Scotland, with an acknowledgment of sins and engagement to duties, in the year 1648;’ which clause is expunged in the New Formula. Nor is this to be viewed as a circumstance of trifling moment; for by this renovation, the nation and church of Scotland became solemnly bound to the standards of uniformity which were at that time drawn up and received.[8] In Quest. V. an approbation of the Narrative and Testimony is substituted simply in the place of the approbation of the Act, Declaration, and Testimony.—In Quest. XI. an approbation is required of the principles about the present civil government, ‘as these principles are stated in the above Narrative and Testimony;’ which statement both in the Narrative and Testimony is extremely defective and partial, as well as contradictory to the doctrine contained in the answers to Mr. Nairn. In fine, in Quest. XII. even the adherence to the sentence of the Synod respecting the religious clause of some burgess-oaths is qualified, and the candidate is required to adhere to it, ‘in opposition to all tenets and practices to the contrary, as particularly stated in the above Narrative and Testimony;’ whereas, in these, the religious clause referred to is condemned upon a ground which was entirely and intentionally abstracted from by the Synod, in the original sentence on this point.

The difference between the former profession of Seceders and that which is now made by the Synod is still more apparent from the introduction to the New Testimony. Not to insist at present upon other particulars, we may observe that the Synod ‘receive the doctrine of the Confession and Catechisms on the head of the civil magistrate’s power in matters of religion, so far only as it agrees’ with the principles stated in their New Testimony.[9] Of the supposed reasons (for none are produced, nor ever were produced) for excepting the specified passages in the Confession, and nameless parts of the Catechisms and other public papers, we shall not here speak, nor of the pretext alleged for this exception, from the act of the General Assembly receiving the Confession of Faith, and from the Declaration of the former principles of the Secession on that head. Suffice it here to say, as to the last of these, that as the Synod, by making a garbled quotation at the foot of the page from this Declaration, without giving any particular direction where to find it, shew that they did not consider themselves as justified by the general and uniform doctrine therein maintained; and the compilers of that paper put it in an express caveat against such a misapplication of their principles, by declaring, in the very same paragraph, that ‘there is nothing especially allotted and allowed unto magistrates by’—the Confessions of the Reformed Churches—but what ‘can be argued for and defended’ from the same principles which they declare;[10] and consequently, that there was nothing especially allotted to magistrates in these Confessions which they had the smallest exception against. By cutting off this declaration, which formed a part of the sentence which they quote, as well as by the manner in which they receive the standards, the Synod declare that they are of a different mind from the Associate Presbytery and all Reformed churches, and afford the strongest presumption that they put a forced and private construction upon the words which they quote.

Nor are the exceptions made by the Synod to these standards confined to the single point mentioned above: they are extended indefinitely. For after a profession of strong reprobation of the conduct of those who adhere to standards, errors excepted, and after a declaration that ‘they express what’ they ‘believe, to be the doctrines of the Bible’ it is added; ‘If however there are any expressions used in these which may appear to some to be either obscure or inconsistent with the following testimony, the Testimony is to be considered as declaratory of the sense in which we adhere to them.’

If the meaning of this were, that these ‘expressions’ which appeared to some ‘obscure and inconsistent’ were still really consistent with the Testimony, which declared their genuine meaning more plainly, there would not be the same reason for objection here. But it cannot escape notice that the Synod have spoken with the greatest ambiguity, as to their adhering to expressions, and of the sense in which they adhere to them. For example, one principle reason for ‘casting the Testimony into a new mould,’ is, that it contained expressions liable to be understood in a very unsound sense, yet they say, that they still ‘adhere to these expressions;’ only they ‘have expressed the sense in which they adhere to these expressions.’ (See N[ew] Testimony, p. 14). Again, they scruple not to adopt the expressions in the passages of the Confession which are most obnoxious to them; but then they use them in a sense very different from, and palpably inconsistent with their meaning in the Confession of Faith. (See N. Testimony, p. 198). Accordingly, in the passage immediately in view, the Synod say ‘the Testimony is to be considered as declaratory of the sense in which we adhere to them.’ But this sense may be inconsistent with the sense of the Standards; of this the Synod are not careful, for they adhere to them only in so far as they are agreeable to their Testimony.

It is but an evasion to allege, that by this the Confession &c. are no more subjected to the Testimony than the Scriptures are subjected to the Confession, when it is considered as declaring our sense of them. To determine this it is only necessary to apply to the scriptures some of the limiting clauses, which are applied by the Synod to the subordinate standards. How would it do to read the first question in the formula, thus; ‘Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the word of God, and the only rule of faith and manners,’ in so far only as they agree with the Narrative and Testimony? Or even to say, ‘if however there are any expressions used in these which may appear to some obscure or inconsistent with the following testimony; the Testimony is to be considered as declaratory of the sense in which we adhere to them?’ Such limitations are obviously inconsistent with holding the Scriptures as the supreme standard; but they are also inconsistent with the acknowledgment of subordinate standards, in their place, in which respect they are supposed to be subordinated to the Scriptures alone; and if they are to be limited, controlled, and judged by any other deeds, henceforth they are degraded from their rank, which is assumed by those deeds to which they must bend, and according to whose language they must speak in all things.

The first Seceders were willing to submit all the subjects of difference between them and the national judicatories to be judged according to the Confession and other standards. The question may be brought to a short issue. It is simply this, Are the Synod willing to make the same submission as to the present points of difference between them and their brethren, or are they not? If they are not, or rather as they cannot, consistently with their declared sentiments it is evident that their profession is no longer what it was.

[go to SECTION IV.]


[1] Display, vol. i. p. 149,152.

[2] Display, vol. i. p. 109.

[3] Wilson’s Defence of the Reformation-principles of the Church of Scotland, p. 476, edit. Glas. 1769.

[4] Narrative and Testimony, p. 9, &c.

[5] Narrative and Testimony, p. 15.

[6] Display, vol. i. p. 161.

[7] The Old Formula may be seen at the beginning of Mr. Gib’s Display of the Secession Testimony, vol. i. The New Formula is printed at the end of the New Testimony.

[8] ‘The Confession of this church with respect to the doctrine, worship, government and discipline, as the same are held forth in the above-mentioned composures, was particularly made by the Solemn League and Covenant of the throe nations, which was sworn by all ranks of persons in Scotland, not only anno 1643 but also anno 1649 (1648), after the Confession of Faith, form of church-government, and directory for public worship, had been received by this church.’ Wilson’s Defence, p. 475-6.

[9] Narrative and Testimony, p. 12.

[10] Display, vol i. p. 311.