The following articles appeared in the pages of the Covenanter magazine, edited by James M. Willson. Mr. Steele’s final response to the editor of the Covenanter appeared in the pages of the Reformed Presbyterian magazine, edited by Moses Roney. The numbered comments are those of Willson animadverting on Steele’s criticisms of the so-called “American Testimony.” Starred comments * belong to the present editor.
“Reformation Principles Exhibited” was part of the subordinate standards (together with the Westminster Standards) of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America from 1806-1979. Many of Mr. Steele’s concerns about the direction of the church, which were dismissed as “peculiar” or ill-conceived by church leaders in his day, have been borne out to have been accurate and, therefore, legitimate. “Wisdom is justified of her children.”
ANALYSIS OF THE “PREFACE TO REFORMATION PRINCIPLES EXHIBITED,” &c.
“Reformation Principles,” is the title of a book which has been perhaps more frequently called “The American Testimony.” The latter is much the more popular designation. It is an important inquiry—Did the framers of the book, or does the book itself, admit of this name? By analyzing the preface to the work we may obtain an answer to this inquiry, for the object of a preface is generally to point out the design of the work.
There are three generic ideas held forth in the preface, and afterwards in the body of the work:—1. That principles be ascertained. 2. That these principles be exhibited. 3. That a plan be devised for exhibiting these principles to others. Of these three ideas, PLAN is the cardinal or leading one. “The PLAN upon which the Reformed Presbytery proposes to exhibit their principles to the world embraces three parts: the first is historical; the second, declaratory; and the third, argumentative.” Now, these three parts are parts of a plan,—not of a testimony.(1.)[*] For the framers of the book speak emphatically, using italic characters, that they may not be misunderstood.
The “three parts of the plan” are followed by two series of definitions, but not in the same logical order; for in the second series of definitions, the declaratory part is placed first in order—doubtless, as being deemed first in importance. This importance attached to the declaratory part in the mind of the framers, is apparent from the fact that the declaratory part alone is exhibited as the “church’s standing Testimony.” The historical and argumentative parts of the PLAN are no parts of the Testimony; for, whereas, the historical part is but a “help to understand the principles of the Testimony;” the argumentative part merely shows the “application of the principles of the Testimony.” (2.)
Moreover, the historical part of the plan or book, is “partly founded upon human records, and therefore not an article of faith.” In like manner, our “confidence in the argumentative part” will “partly rest upon human testimony,” unless we shall have read and known every work to which it refers. Also, “Divine truth is alone the foundation of our hope. Authentic history and sound argument are always to be highly valued,—but they should not be incorporated with the confession of the church’s faith.” Finally, that the doctrinal propositions contained in this book, together with the errors condemned, are alone to be regarded as testimony in the intention of the framers, is obvious from their own attestations, viz., “The Reformed Presbytery do hereby ratify and approve the Preface and the Brief Historical View of the Church,...and appoint Messrs. Wm. Gibson and Alex. M’Leod a Committee . . . to publish the work with all convenient speed. New York, May 12, 1806....The Presbytery referred, for publication, the Declaration and Testimony to the Committee to whom was referred the Historical View, May 15, 1806. JOHN BLACK, Clerk.”
Now, I would ask—Can any intelligent and honest Reformed Presbyterian embrace the foregoing view of a judicial testimony? In other words, Can he relinquish all Reformation attainments except abstract declaration of doctrine, and equally abstract condemnation of error? Does this comprehend all our Covenanted attainments? If so, what do we more than others? Do not even the General Assembly of Ireland, the Established and Free Assemblies of Scotland, as also the Seceders of Britain and the United States, do the same? (3.)
The edition of Reformation Principles issued in the year 1824, has been often called a spurious edition, because it omits in the Historical View certain immoral features of the United States Constitution, and the action of courts of the church in reference to these. But if the historical part of the book never was a part of the church’s Testimony, I see not how the omission of a part, or the whole of that history, could vitiate the Testimony. The epithet spurious could apply only to the book, not to the Testimony. And, indeed, our former brethren, the New Lights, would appear to have acted a consistent part in discarding the Historical View altogether. As The Sum of Saving Knowledge has been often regarded as part of the Westminster Confession—[or] the Apocrypha, part of the Bible—so has the Historical View, from its location, been considered by many as an integral part of the judicial testimony of the church. Thus we frequently find in the pages of the Covenanter, and elsewhere, the phrase—“The historical part of our Testimony!” And, no doubt, the like phraseology would have been as readily employed in reference to the argumentative part of the Presbytery’s PLAN, had it been prepared and published in the same volume! (4.)
But there is another reason for this frequent confounding of things that are distinct; namely, that the honest Covenanter, whatever may be the measure of his intelligence, has ever been accustomed to associate in his mind, doctrine, history, and argument, as integral parts of his Testimony. This is right; and until all Reformed Presbyterians come to unanimity in this matter, all attempts at uniformity will prove abortive. (5.)
As “Reformation Principles Exhibited” has rejected history and argument from being any part of the judicial testimony of the Reformed Church, and so sapped the foundation of her Covenanted constitution, (6.), that work has likewise effected this by a free use of sophistry. For example—
1. When we read that the historical part of the book is “partly founded on human records, and is therefore not an article of faith,” we ask—Is the conclusion contained in the premise? In the premise it is fairly implied that the historical part is founded, at least in part, on divine records. Is it therefore not an article of faith, in so far as thus founded? This negative and false assertion is contained in the conclusion. This kind of reasoning will equally overthrow the foundation of faith in doctrinal propositions; for any one may perceive that an uninspired person may err at least as readily in stating a doctrine as in stating a fact of Scripture. (7.)
2. Again. “Our confidence in the argumentative part will partly rest upon human testimony, unless we shall have read and known every work to which it refers.” Now, suppose we have read every work to which the argumentative part refers, would our confidence then rest only on divine testimony? No, indeed, the stream cannot rise higher than its source. Alas! alas! (8.)
3. Finally, on the score of logic. “Every human help which can be obtained, is to be used in subserviency to the interest of religion.” This is a correct sentiment. “But divine truth is alone the foundation of our hope.” This is also a sound sentiment; but are the two sentiments so antithetical as to be incompatible? Certainly not; but such was the conception of the writer, or he wished so to impress the reader with the idea of their incompatibility; for it is farther affirmed that however “authentic history and sound arguments...have been beneficial to the church, they should not be incorporated with the confession of the church’s faith.” Here there is a shifting of the original ground. The matter of a testimony was the subject of inquiry; but ere we are aware, the “confession of the church’s faith” is instantly substituted. Surely it is no perversion of the language here used to say, that confession and testimony are the same thing. Such was not the mind of our earlier fathers. (9.)
In a word, on a fair analysis of the “Preface to Reformation Principles Exhibited,” the following deductions are legitimate and undeniable:—
1. That history and argument ought not to be a part of the church’s Testimony.
2. That neither of these is in fact a part of the volume styled “The American Testimony.”
3. That these two propositions adopted as true, do necessarily subvert the Covenanted Reformation: for—
4. Even the doctrinal propositions of our Confession and Catechisms are received, not because they are inspired or infallible; but simply because they are, in the apprehension of the Christian, “agreeable to the holy Scriptures.” (10.) Much more does this obviously apply to our solemn covenants as embodying the heroic achievements of our martyred and witnessing fathers. Add to these, all the real attainments of those who survived the overthrow of the “Second Reformation.” (11.)
Dec. 29, 1855.
REMARKS ON THE ABOVE.
[Mr. Willson’s remarks correspond to the numbers in Mr. Steele’s article.]
(1.) “A plan.” Certainly; but “a plan” for the putting forth of a “Testimony.” The word “plan” always relates to something which is to be accomplished by, or according to, it. [back]
(2.) The framers of the “Preface” well understood the place of each of their “parts;” and hence, they first display the truth in the form of a Testimony against error and sin wherever they exist, and whenever; and thus facilitate and prepare the way for a specific application of all that has been thus ascertained against all that hold these errors, or commit or sanction these sins. [back]
(3.) No. They are very far from doing the same. Not one of these bodies has ever testified; nor, until they are more thoroughly reformed, will they testify against nearly all the errors and sins “condemned” in Reformation Principles. We are surprised to find a writer of any intelligence making such a statement. For example, Do the Seceders testify against all who deny the doctrine of Messiah’s Headship? And more. Is this a fair exhibition of our Testimony? As far as possible from it. Its own language is—“We condemn the following errors, and testify against all who maintain them.” Is that a mere abstract condemnation? A great error, moreover, as appears in the sequel, lies at the foundation of all this. [back]
(4.) As to whether the right epithets have been employed in designating the edition of 1829 [does JMW mean 1824?], we do not inquire. Perhaps “mutilated” would be a better word. But what has this to do with the subject before us? The matter of fact is, that the “Historical Part” was prepared and published for the very purpose of throwing light upon the meaning; and, in part, also, of fixing the application of the declaratory part. [back]
(5.) Here is the writer’s great error. He holds “history” to be “testimony.” But how much “history?” We have some sketches of the primitive church. We learn that there was a man called, “Arius,” another called “Nestorius,” another “Pelagius.” Now, is it faith—a divine faith—to believe that such men lived, and held such and such opinions? Must their names, their doctrines, and their lives, be recorded in a “history” prepared by the church, and then, as thus sanctioned, imposed upon every church member as an article of faith? But, we must not stop here. There have been, perhaps, hundreds of heretics of less note, whose names are recorded in voluminous histories. Are we to take them out of the ashes, and then require as a condition of church membership, that all our findings, or rather supposed findings—for much would be very obscure—be received as God’s own truth, just as we receive the inspired histories of Joshua and Kings, &c.? But, still more. What are we to do about the witnesses of the middle ages, and their contendings? Are these to be minutely exhibited? We say “minutely;” for if “history” is “testimony,” who dare draw the line, and say, “So much is to be taken, and no more?” Alas for the church, if all this be required of her; if, besides the Bible, which we thought a sufficient rule of faith and guide to the duty and profession of the church, we must know with absolute certainty, every heretic, every heresy, every enemy of the church, against whom she has ever contended, or else live and die without a proper “Testimony.”
It may be said, we strain the views of our correspondent. Not at all. It may seem very easy to incorporate the outlines of a history reaching back about two or three hundred years into our system of faith—particularly as we have a pretty full account of the events of that period; but what right have we to stop there? We must go on, and never stop till we reach the very period when the canon of Revelation was completed. Surely no one will say that the contests of later times, however important, are more worthy of a place in an accredited history than those in which the proper divinity of the Son of God was vindicated.
Again: it may be easy to form a reliable outline of later controversies, but the principle is the same as applied to earlier times; and if the doctrine before us be true, that Covenanter is in rather a bad condition, who does not know and believe with a divine faith that a deeply interesting and most influential controversy was waged in the ninth century between Godeschaleus, and Rabanus Maurus on the subject of predestination and free grace; or, earlier still, between Augustin and Pelagius. We can hardly treat an absurd principle of this kind with due patience. Again: our correspondent says that “argument is an integral part of the church’s Testimony.” This we deny; unless he means arguments taken from the Scriptures, either directly or by inference. There is here a very important distinction, of which the writer before us evidently lost sight. Arguments for truth, or against an error, are constantly referable to the word of God exclusively; but arguments against an instituted or existing thing, may have intermingled elements, which depends entirely upon the evidence of men uninspired, and having no claim to infallibility, (even the Papists admit that the Pope is not infallible in regard to facts); and, of course, that they all proceed upon the premise that these statements are true. How any man, or any church, can oblige us to believe with a divine faith that the reasoning employed is always good and valid, and that all the facts which it states are really as true as the Bible, we cannot see; and will scarcely credit that it is so, until we believe the doctrine—contrary to our Confession of Faith—that Synods cannot err. We are not even bound to believe that the best selection of texts and arguments has been made to prove the doctrines stated in the Confession and Catechisms. If Covenanters have regarded human history as on par with Bible truth—for it comes to this—we are sorry for them; but do not yet believe it. [back]
(6.) How? She has her “Covenanted constitution” in her hands. She knows what it is. It is a strange delusion that the “Covenanted constitution” depends not on God’s word, but on her own or some other person’s “say so.” But let us not be mistaken. We “fix our faith to no man’s—to no church’s—sleeve.” Our faith, our hope, has the word of the living God for its basis; still, we neither reject nor make useless, credible history, much less do we reject the testimony of our own eyes and ears. By the former we learn—not with a divine faith, however—much, very much to the honor of the faithful and to our own profit in fixing the proper position of the church’s Testimony; and by the latter, we ascertain that the Constitution of the United States, for example, leaves out of view the very name of God, and that the creeds and practices of surrounding churches are more or less obnoxious to the charge of error, against which, according to the word of God, we bear testimony, and so we “testify against them.”
Our correspondent here makes an appeal to the feelings of the Covenanting church in behalf of our witnessing forefathers. But does he not see, that, so far from any hope of carrying his principle, if he can make it out—the consequence will be, by exalting unduly the rights and powers of the church, that the church will soon be cut loose from her contending forefathers; for most assuredly we are not ready to adopt the worst form of the Popish doctrine of the church’s infallibility; and yet, on his principles, we have but two alternatives. [back]
(7.) The bad logic is on the other side. If two elements or forces contribute to an effect, the effect must be proportioned to the strength of the weaker. Build a ship of the strongest materials except one row of beams—let this row be weak, and the ship is no stronger than they are. And as to the last statement, it would be conclusive enough provided we received our doctrines on the “statings” of men. And here, again, comes out the radical and most dangerous error of the writer, viz., that our faith rests, not upon the word of God, but the “statings” of men. [back]
(8.) Our testimony will rest, in this latter case, upon the same evidence on which we believe there is a Bible at all—the evidence of our senses—which is the evidence, so far as they are good and rightly exercised, of Him who made them. Alas! what confusion on this whole subject in the mind of our correspondent! [back]
(9.) If there was any one thing more than another characteristic of our fathers, it was the very thing that is so well stated in the language of the “Preface,” and is here repudiated. They followed, not man, but God, speaking in his word. Mr. S[teele] would bind us to follow man instead. [back]
(10.) Does Mr. S[teele] hold that the Confession and Catechisms are inspired and infallible? Mark, we are not speaking of their doctrines, but of the terms in which they are expressed in the books. If so, we have really four or five Bibles. What more does he want than that we acknowledge these documents to be scriptural—to contain the truth “agreeable to the Scriptures?” Here, again, we meet with his fearful error—putting human compositions on par with the Bible. [back]
(11.) How so? And how far would he carry this? We repeat, he is taking the direct course to send our fathers into oblivion by exalting them to an equality with God, and requiring us to put the same faith in them we do in God.
And, in conclusion, Mr. S[teele] left the church some fifteen years ago , but had no knowledge of any of these difficulties until it became necessary to look up some reasons for the schism which he created. We hope he will re-consider his views, and yet prove a useful “witness,” which he cannot do while he thus unduly exalts the creature. [back]
[The above article and response appeared in the Covenanter magazine, March 1856, pp.231-237.]
PREFACE TO REFORMATION PRINCIPLES, &c.
[Mr. Steele’s article was prefaced with the following comments of the editor of the Covenanter, Mr. James M. Willson:]
We cheerfully give the following a place. Its tone is better than that of a former article, on which we commented—pretty severely, we admit—for it did seem to us rather strange that an intelligent Protestant should believe and teach more sweeping doctrines—in one respect, as we supposed—in regard to the power of the church to add to the list of things to be believed by the Christian, than the Popish apostacy ever claimed. For certainly, if the church can select certain historical statements, and require as a condition of membership that these be received, on her testimony, of course, as part of the Christian’s faith, she has a very singular and delicate duty to perform, and one that she could hardly perform aright without the same inspiration which guided the pens of the members whom Stephen quoted, (Acts 7).
The article below somewhat modifies this view; or, at least, expresses more clearly the mind of the writer, and we find less to object to. Still, we are not satisfied with its statements altogether. It admits, and we are glad it does so, that we are to try everything by the Scriptures, even the steps of the martyrs, but yet it speaks of them—taken simply, as we understand it—as “authoritative.” This needs to be very carefully guarded, as we shall fall, inevitably, into the Popish error of following “the fathers,” not as helps, nor as exemplars, whose faith, and courage, and zeal, and Scriptural testimony, we are to imitate, but as a sort of “Rule of Faith.” We are touching upon delicate ground, but we cannot forbear to ask, Were James Renwick now on the footstool, would D[avid] S[teele] take him as an “authoritative” guide, or receive his “arguments” any farther than he had proved them by the Scriptures? We are sure that this eminent and godly martyr would never have desired, for a moment, any such homage. We should follow the footsteps of the flock as we have them before us in the recognized Scripture principle of the church. And in reference to a remark in this article, we add, that men have always been martyred, not for what they have held of human history, but for applying faithfully the doctrines of the Bible as a testimony against existing evils. The world will allow us to praise the martyrs, if we do not, like them, oppose present evils.—ED. COV. [James M. Willson]
In my first article on the structure of this book [Reformation Principles Exhibited], I have not been explicit enough to be readily understood, as appears from the “remarks” of the Covenanter. My aim is to be understood in the vindication of what I consider the precious cause of Christ and truth. But I cannot hope to be understood by any who are either impervious to the evidence of Scripture and reason, or who have not interest enough to “search the Scriptures” and other helps to the understanding of the truth.
I have said that the word “plan” is the leading term in the “Preface” to “Reformation Principles Exhibited.” This plan is not “for putting forth of a Testimony” in three parts. The plan is adopted for the declared purpose of “exhibiting to the world the PRINCIPLES” embraced by its framers. Let the reader examine for himself the language and sentiment of the “Preface;” and he cannot fail to perceive that the plan consists of three parts, of which one only is testimony—namely, the DECLARATORY part. Thus, according to this form of a Testimony, abstract doctrine declared, and equally abstract error condemned, is all that is required of Christ’s witnesses! On this ground there never could have been a martyr in the world. “Thou believest that there is one God; thou doest well: the devils also believe and tremble,” James 2:19. And many besides devils, hold this and other divine truths in unrighteousness. Rom. 1:18. To hold the truth is well, to declare it is better; yet neither one nor both will constitute a Christian, much less a witness of Christ, in the Scriptural and technical sense.
I have said and asserted—and again assert, in opposition to Reformation Principles Exhibited—that the honest Covenanter, whatever may be the measure of his intelligence, has ever been accustomed to associate in his mind doctrine, history and argument, as integral parts of his Testimony. And I add, that no Covenanter can reject history or argument from his Testimony, without forfeiting his claim to that honorable appellation. And I am willing that the positions just stated be denounced, for the time being, as erroneous—“great error, radical and most dangerous error—the worst form of Popish doctrine,” &c.[**] provided only that such denunciations will contribute to arrest the reader’s attention, and incite farther inquiry.
The question to be settled is not—Whether human history is to be received with a “divine faith;” for the kind of testimony determines the kind of faith; nor whether all ecclesiastical history is to be incorporated in the church’s Testimony; for that is simply impossible and intuitively absurd; not whether the writer of this article “left the church some fifteen years ago,—created schism,” &c.; for these matters are wholly irrelevant, and capable of being satisfactorily settled on their own merits:—but, Whether in the light of God’s word, history and argument are to be inseparably joined with doctrine in the Testimony of the church, is the question. The affirmative we maintain,—the negative is asserted in the “Preface” to Reformation Principles Exhibited, and urged by the Covenanter. “What saith Scripture?” The case of Stephen, the protomartyr under the Christian dispensation, will serve for both proof and illustration, (Acts 7:1, &c.). This witness begins his testimony with history, commencing with the call of Abraham, and ending at his own time. From the 51st to the 53rd verse, he applies the facts of history and doctrines declared to the case in hand; and this he does in argumentative form. Take the case of the blind man restored to sight, (John 9:13-34). The former of these witnesses was stoned to death [i.e., Stephen]; the latter excommunicated [i.e., the blind man restored], for stating facts, and arguing from them. These two examples are deemed sufficient at present for proof and illustration. But it may be said—“These are inspired records—Scriptural examples.” True, and just because they are inspired instances of testimony-bearing we adduce them, to establish and illustrate our position, which they irrefragably do. “But what has this to do with uninspired, mere human history, as a part of testimony?” “Much every way,” chiefly with reference to Covenanting. Their very designation, COVENANTERS, one would suppose sufficient, if received in its historical import, to establish the truth of our position. But we waive that for the present.
There are two kinds of faith—distinct, but inseparable; and, as already stated, the kind of faith is determined by the kind of testimony, while both are required by God’s word and by the condition of human society. The one, for the sake of a distinction, is called divine faith; the other, human. “If we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater,” 1 John 5:9. Christ said to the Pharisees—“It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true,” John 8:17. See also Matt. 18:16. Now it is obvious that facts, rather than principles, constitute testimony. And it is undeniable that the holy Scriptures sustain the credibility of human testimony, though uninspired. Still, “the witness (testimony) of God is greater.” Hence I reason thus:—The Lord Jesus, whose name is the Word of God, the faithful and true Witness, having it in charge to reveal and execute the purposes of God; and the devil, the father of lies, who sinneth from the beginning, being assiduously engaged in falsifying the revealed will, and resisting the execution of the purposes of Jehovah, (Rev. 5:9; 12:7); both these leaders are accompanied by their respective partisans of the human family. Protestants generally agree that Popery is a diabolical organization against Christ and truth. That Christ is a divine person, is a doctrine of Scripture, (John 1:1); but this is questioned by the devil, (Matt. 4:6), though admitted by the church of Rome. Christ, being divine, is the object of worship. To this Popery assents. But Christ is also Mediator between God and man. Well, Popery admits this also, and resists only the exclusive mediation of Christ; which office the Romish church distributes among Christ, Mary, angels, &c. And we know both the errors and idolatries as FACTS in the history of Popery. True, we may and ought to try both by God’s word. On the other hand, we know that Christ is the Son of God, and that we ought to “honor the Son, even as we honor the Father,”—we know these things, I say, not only as doctrinally declared, but also as exemplified in the faith and practice of the church of God in all ages. Of the three men who visited Abraham, (Gen. 18:2), the patriarch worships one only, (v. 22). The unbelieving Jews claim Abraham as their father, but refused to do the works of Abraham, and so falsified their claim, (John 8:33,39). We claim to be the seed of Christ’s covenanted witnesses in Britain and Ireland; but unless we “walk in the steps of their faith,” our professed attachment to that faith will avail us nothing.
But it may be said, Who denies all this, or what has this to do with the matter of a testimony? Everything. That many of our former brethren are aiming to copy their “noble example,” including the Covenanter, is matter of our joy and thanksgiving to God. But how? As individuals?—as congregations?—as judicatories? If so, it is all right, so far as they followed Christ. Still Christ enjoins it upon us to “go forth by the footsteps of the flock,” (Song 1:8). These footsteps are Christian practices; that is, they are the application of principle, Scriptural principle, to individual and social life. Let it be noticed that Christ counsels inquirers to follow the footsteps of the flock; thus making those footsteps at once directive and authoritative. We can know the footsteps, the Christian and social practice of our Covenanted fathers, only by HISTORY; and through the same medium alone do we come to ascertain the very arguments by which they defended both their faith and practice.
My faith may be designated human; or, if you will, even Popish; still, I am not ashamed to own that the practice of Cameron, Cargill, Renwick, and those with whom those martyrs were associated, is directive to me, and authoritative also! Indeed, I am bound to bring even their principles and arguments “to the law and to the testimony,” but history alone will supply me with these; which, that it may do, I must have it before me in an authenticated form. In this matter the Lord Jesus will not allow us to walk at random. “Go thy way...by the footsteps of the flock.” The great outlines of the Mediator’s special providence, and of the church’s faithful contendings, must ever be before her children, sanctioned by her authority in judicial form, that posterity may see how she has walked with God in the wilderness; as also wherein she may have acted perfidiously in view of her solemn covenant engagement. But the “Preface” to Reformation Principles Exhibited leaves the children of the church to shape their own course, without any authoritative, organic example. And so it comes to pass that we are this day “divided in Jacob, and scattered in Israel;” although a petition was before the Reformed Presbyterian Synod to “restore the term testimony to its former ecclesiastical use” more than SEVENTEEN years ago![***]
April 4th, 1856
[The above article, together with Mr. Willson’s animadversions in preface, appeared in the Covenanter magazine, May 1856, pp.301-305.]
“Be not thou ashamed of the testimony of our Lord.”—2 Tim. 1:8.
Paul was in prison for the testimony of Jesus Christ, and exhorts Timothy not to be ashamed of that testimony, nor of Paul, Christ’s prisoner. Doubtless Timothy was tempted to be ashamed of both, as the testimony was unpopular, and Paul not less so. Very similar were the temptations by which Moses was assailed in Egypt, being subjected to the “reproach of Christ,” Heb. 11:26. Similar are the temptations of Christ’s witnesses at the present time. Their testimony was never less popular than it is in our day; and indeed the unpopularity, both of themselves and of their cause, may be expected to increase till the announcement of Babylon’s fall. In the mean time, much of their consolation lies in this,—that their testimony is also the testimony of their Lord. “Ye are my witnesses—ye shall be witnesses unto me—and I will give power unto my two witnesses,” Isa. 43:10; Acts 1:8; Rev. 11:3.
But that their testimony may have due efficacy, the witnesses must be united in visible fellowship, and also in the matter of their testimony. They must all speak that they do know, and testify that they have seen—“all speak the same thing, that there be no divisions (schisms) among them; but that they be perfectly joined together in the same mind, and in the same judgment,” 1 Cor. 1:10. Not that they “must agree in every object of thought,”—no, that is impossible; but, as already said, in the matter of their testimony. After agreement in this, there will still be ample scope for diversity of opinion, and for legitimate exercise of charity in mutual forbearance.
As to the matter of a Testimony, what is it? Or, what ought it to comprehend? Here, it is to be lamented that those who would be considered witnesses for Christ, are in our day far, very far from unanimity. And history shows that want of agreement here has been on the increase for the past two hundred years [this was written in 1856]—ever since the overthrow of the Second Reformation. Of this disagreement existing judicial testimonies are a visible demonstration. Of these, the first in historical order, is that emitted by the Associate body [i.e., the Seceders] in Scotland, near the middle of the eighteenth century; which was followed, some years after, by the emission of the Testimony of the Reformed Presbytery [in 1761]. Will anyone say that these testimonies agree? Why, one of the avowed objects of the latter is to overthrow some of the matter of the former. But this disagreement as to the matter of a testimony, was not confined to the Associate and Reformed Presbyterian bodies. Early in the present century [i.e., the nineteenth century], some of the descendants of the Covenanters in this country conceived the idea of giving a new “Exhibition of Reformation Principles.” At the time it was avowed, and ever since it has been maintained by some, that for matter and substance the Scottish and American Testimonies agree. Is this the fact? On the contrary, some think, and others have all along thought, that these well-known ecclesiastical documents are as really, though not so obviously, different in matter, as they are dissimilar in arrangement. That this is the state of the matter will appear to any unbiased mind, on even a slight examination. For whereas history and argument are alone declared to be testimony in the Scottish document [of 1761]; in the American these are expressly excluded, and doctrine alone declared to be testimony. Surely this is a difference in matter,—a difference as great as can be conceived. The Christian profession includes practice as well as principle. There are indeed “damnable heresies,” (2 Pet. 2:1); but it is no less true that many “walk” so as to evince “that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ,” Phil. 3:18. These two things our Scottish fathers had in view, when they testified not only for “sound doctrine,” formally embodied in their Confession of Faith; but also for the “power of godliness” exemplified in Christian practice, and exhibited in a joint Testimony. Among consistent Reformed Presbyterians, unity in the faith, and uniformity in its application, have ever been the terms of their fellowship. And this unity and uniformity are mutually pledged, not only as required by the word of God, but as the subordinate standards of both their faith and practice “were received by the Church of Scotland.” Of course the avowed faith—that is, the principles of our covenant fathers, and their Christian practice—are known to us only by the evidence of uninspired history; and while we view neither their system of faith nor their known practice as infallible, we nevertheless own their principles and engage to follow their footsteps—and both, if need be, with all the solemnity of the oath of God. All this is implied and carried out in covenant renovation. (1.)[****] Renovation! What is the import of this term? Among other things, it imports that the covenanted witnesses of Christ are a perpetual corporation—an indestructible moral personality—the only proper, real, historical society on earth. He who is not ashamed to be called the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has said—“This is my name for ever, and this is my memorial unto all generations.” (2.)
Some may be disposed to inquire how this important subject of covenant renovation was received and handled by the Old Light Synod at the late meeting; especially when that solemn ordinance was directly in contemplation. Well, so far as competent to a spectator, the following brief statement of facts is submitted, subject to correction if necessary. The “Confession of Sins and the Bond” being under review for adoption, several amendments were made, as will appear on inspecting the two copies of each. There was little discussion, and evidently unanimity in adopting the amendments. These consist mostly in abbreviations, and the reason for expunging, more than once offered and deemed satisfactory was, “that the paragraph, clause, &c. was historical.” And a member of Synod, who was most forward in suggesting amendments, added as a further reason or argument, that “he did not like to swear to the truth of history!!” These sentiments were tacitly endorsed by the whole Synod, as there was no opposition openly manifested. It occurred to us while looking on, that the reasons assigned, if valid at all, would naturally lead to the expunging of the whole Bond! [the Bond, or covenant, being contemplated at that time, was never adopted] and more—to expunging of the original covenants themselves [this the RPCNA did in 1871, when they adopted their “American” covenant]; yea, the entire subordinate symbols of our profession!!! [This last concern came to pass in the RPCNA, in 1980, with the adoption of the new “Testimony,” which serves merely to expunge various portions of the Confession of Faith and Catechisms.] For assuredly these are not found in the Scriptures, nor were they framed by that Synod; they come to us from the hands of uninspired men. (3.)
But if we “cannot swear to the truth of history,” what is the reason? We assume that the only reason having the shadow of plausibility is this, we cannot be sure that the history is infallibly true. Well, then, if we can swear to the truth of doctrine, the reason must be, because we are sure of its infallibility. (4.) We shall not call this the “worst form of the popish error,” preferring that the reader pronounce upon it according to his own judgment.
As farther illustrative of the matter of a faithful Testimony, we notice the “advance and offer of the olive branch,” by the New Light to the Old Light brethren. Special prominence is given to the idea of doctrinal unity between the bodies. “It is cause of thankfulness that the two bodies recognize the same ecclesiastical standards—maintain a common profession—recognize the same symbols of a public profession,” &c. How is this?—one in principle, yet divided in fellowship! Surely if anything can convince us that agreement in principle is not of itself a sufficient bond of fellowship, this example of the relation between Old and New Lights, for more than twenty years, ought to produce such convictions. (5.)
For many years the New Lights have consistently dropped the “Historical Part” of Reformation Principles, as being no part of their Testimony; while the Old Lights continue inconsistently to publish the “Historical Views” as part of their Testimony; contrary to its own evidence!—unreasonably requiring of the New Lights a recognition of said history as a bond of renewed fellowship, and at the same time “expunging” from their “Bond” of closer union among themselves certain provisions, because they are historical. (6.)
It is to be deplored that the Old Light Synod, at the late meeting did, with more visible unanimity and apparent boldness, declare against historical testimony as any part of the bond of fellowship amongst them, than at any former period. Surely it might suffice that they had violated our covenant unity and uniformity by divers kinds of unholy fellowship with ungodly men; from which sins, though partially forsaken, “they are not cleansed to this day” by judicial confession. But the evil is greatly aggravated, and guilt unspeakably augmented, by the late attempt to open wide the floodgate at which those evils entered.
We would beseech former brethren to ponder the path of their feet—to consider the plain import of the Scripture terms, “paths—ways—footsteps,” and such like; and tell us whether these mean doctrine or practice; and if practice, whether we are under any obligation by the law of God and our solemn covenants to walk in those footsteps marked by God’s covenant people, and appointed by our Divine Lawgiver. (7.) “Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls,” Jer. 6:16.
Tranquillity, Aug. 7th, 1856.
[Here follows the “remarks” of the editor, Mr. Willson:]
(1.) How they were “received by the Church of Scotland,” appears in the documents themselves: in the recorded acts. We take these acts as furnishing the proper explanation of certain passages. [back]
(2.) We deny nothing of all this, nor doubt it. But what has this to do with the question, whether a man is unworthy of membership in the church of Christ who is not acquainted with the entire system of evil against which the faithful have testified? For the question between our correspondent and us resolves itself into this. He would limit this knowledge nearly, if not entirely, to the practice of our forefathers in Scotland. But by what right? Other Testimonies have been exhibited—multitudes of them. Why not include them? That history is a “help” to understand the doctrines of the witnesses, and guide their application, we admit; but that history is a “term of communion,” we never can admit. [back]
(3.) If the design of this paragraph is not to make “our faith stand in the wisdom of men,” we are unable to comprehend it at all. As to the doctrinal standards, we receive them as being “agreeable to the Scriptures,” and we have the Scriptures in our hands with which to compare them, and are not the Scriptures “infallible,” and their teachings “infallible?” They are the fountains. As to “swearing to the truth of history,” we ask, How much would our correspondent have us swear to? Knox wrote the history of the First Reformation—Buchanan also; Stevenson wrote the history of the Second. Would Mr. S[teele] “swear” to them? If not, how can he “swear” to the truth of writings derived from them? Again, we say, we have no difficulty in receiving them on “human testimony;” our difficulty is, in excluding from church membership persons who believe the doctrines of the Bible—apply them correctly against all sins—public and private—unless they are willing to take in a 3d Book of Chronicles, compiled by uninspired men. If others are prepared to do this, we have no sympathy with them. [back]
(4.) Certainly, “infallible” because Bible truth. But is humanly compiled history of equal authority with the Bible? Here is our correspondent’s radical error. He would give us an addition to the infallible history of the Bible. [back]
(5.) How so? If the New Lights really held these doctrines and practiced accordingly, they would, of course, be sound Covenanters. We admit neither. The “relation” between us and them, is that of a people adhering to the truth, and its application, to a people who have abandoned both. [back]
(6.) A recognition of history has never been required of the New Lights. They are required as a term of union to apply the principles of the Reformation correctly. [back]
(7.) Of course, we are so bound, and so we do. We make the same application which we have good evidence they did, of the same principles. They did this in their day—for the last eighteen hundred years—and we do it in our day. What more does Mr. S[teele] want?
And, finally, if this article of our correspondent is taken merely as an argument on behalf of a historical Testimony, as a “help,” to understand a doctrinal one—as a becoming record of the contendings of the great and good in past times—we have no dispute with him. If as an argument on behalf of the principle that we must “swear to the truth of history,” we differ widely from him. And we wonder that he does not see, that the result of his effort—if successful—that is, if he shows that if we have a history with our Testimony, it must be infallible—the result will be the entire rejection of such a history as part of the church’s Testimony. It would really amount to a “reductio ad absurdum.” Be assured, the Covenanting Church will never abandon the doctrine that the “word of God is the only rule of faith and manners.”—ED. COV. [James M. Willson.] [back]
[The above article, together with Mr. Willson’s “remarks,” appeared in the Covenanter magazine, October, 1856, pp. 72-75.]
A QUESTION ANSWERED.
In the Covenanter for October, 1856, page 75 [above page], among other questions, the following is propounded:—”What more does Mr. S[teele] want?” This question is very indefinite, yet I hope to furnish a definite answer.
1. I want candor in an opponent—reasoning, and not railing—argument, and not insult.
2. Besides Reformation Principles Exhibited, which is to be approved, I want reformation practices exemplified, because “faith without works is dead, being alone,” Jas. 2:17-26. And as this is required in the case of a Christian personally, much more of the Church of God organically. Christ “left us an example, that we should follow His steps,” as well as believe His teachings, and we are enjoined to be followers (imitators) of others as they were of Christ, 1 Cor. 11:1. Now the Church being a moral person, is bound to conform in practice as well as principle, to the Word of God. Thus did our covenant fathers in the British Isles in the seventeenth century. Christian practice in carrying out principle was as well defined as principle itself; and this too in all the relations of social life. This divine order was overthrown in Scotland in 1651, by the “public resolutions” of the General Assembly which resolutions seem to be more regarded than the Supreme rule by a large majority of their posterity to this day.
3. I want the Covenanter and all interested, to understand distinctly that I adhere not to “other testimonies—multitudes of them,” as I do, and am solemnly bound to do, to the covenanted testimony of the Church of Scotland:—that I hope to be always capable of distinguishing between that testimony and the histories of Buchanan, Knox and others, which I admit were excellent “helps” to the right understanding and appreciation of said testimony. And here is the Covenanter’s “radical error;” but by no means is he chargeable with originating it; for it is at least as old as the aforementioned public resolutions. He would obviously put the covenanted testimony of the Church of Scotland upon a level—a footing of equality with “other testimonies—multitudes of them,” and he confidently asks—“Why not include them?” Alas! is this the estimate in which a Covenanter! holds the blood-sealed testimony of our martyred fathers? I charitably believe the Covenanter is bewildered when he attempts to speak of this subject, otherwise his self-contradictions are to me unaccountable. He has never studied the matter of a judicial testimony—especially his own! He says—“We make the same application which we have good evidence they (our fathers) did, of the same principles.” I ask, where is that good evidence to be found? When found, what is its legal use or value to the Church? In the Covenanter’s view, it serves to direct the “application of principles.” Now, that is precisely what I want: for,
4. I want all intelligent and faithful Covenanters, with all others, to know that I recognize ecclesiastical standards as of two distinct kinds or grades—supreme and subordinate. And I am grieved to discover any Covenanter—ashamed to hear any professing covenanted minister assert the INFALLIBILITY of doctrinal declaration by uninspired men![*****] Again, I say, alas! What is to be expected as the end, when Reformed Presbyterians cease to distinguish between the “infallible rule of faith and manners,” and the “subordinate” helps which the Church, at much cost and hazard, has furnished to posterity—showing how to understand and apply that rule? I trust that hereafter, no one will think it pertinent to ask, Whether I deem “humanly compiled history of equal authority with the Bible?” seeing I do not, with the Covenanter, admit even “humanly compiled” doctrine to that eminence.
5. I want, moreover, the Reformed Presbyterian Church, through her highest judicatory, and all the membership, responsively to declare before the world, and especially in the hearing of antichrist, that her practice is as unalterable as her principles—that she holds no principle which is not susceptible of application, or which is of doubtful application. It will be remembered how frequently, in the years 1832 and 1833, was the assertion uttered—“We differ not in principle—we differ only in the application of principle.” A little meditation on this expression, in connection with past events, might contribute to brighten our vision.
Let the Church restore “history and argument” to their former legitimate position in the public symbols of her profession, and all may be well. And if she has not in possession either of these in complete form, to guide the “wayfaring man” to Immanuel’s land—to the camp of the Lamb—let them be compiled with all convenient speed, and her promise of near half a century be faithfully performed. This is the only rational and Scriptural method of preserving or of restoring uniformity as well as unanimity, among the witnesses of Christ.
6. I want the Covenanter, and those who adopt his theory of a judicial testimony, to test the consistency of that theory with their “term of communion,” which requires “an approbation of the faithful contendings of the martyrs of Jesus,” &c. This approbation must be declared by every person as a sine qua non [that without which]—a condition without which the Covenanter will not admit him to fellowship. Among those who have suffered for religion, who are to be viewed as martyrs? Again, of the contendings of the martyrs, which are to be considered faithful? And then, where is this information to be obtained since the canon of Divine Revelation was completed? Certainly this “term” at least, supposes the credibility of uninspired history.
7. I want it known to all whom it may concern, that the theory which I attempt to support in this and former articles, is not to be attributed to me as the originator, but that it is “the ancient plea of the Church of Scotland in her purest times.” Not a plea “to justify a schism made some fifteen years ago,” but a precious Scriptural principle, judicially asserted and publicly maintained in the British Isles, and in North America, from the year 1761 till 1806 [when the “American Testimony” was adopted], and in those isles till 1837 [when a re-written Testimony was adopted]—on both sides of the Atlantic innovations being introduced at those respective dates. These innovations were resisted by protesters, at the time, and ever since, whom I recognize as the legitimate successors of those who, in Scotland, in 1651, bore the same honorable name. In the year 1815, a large pamphlet appeared in Scotland, which retarded the change of the terms of communion till 1822, and of the Testimony till 1837. This work I read with profit many years ago, as it exposed the like innovation in Reformation Principles, then recently “Exhibited.” In this land a similar protest was managed by a minority all along, among whom Wallace, of Philadelphia, and Tippon, of South Carolina, merit honorable mention. This plea is therefore an old one, a continued one, an undying one—for although Divine truth and its advocates fall, (Isa. 59:14; Rev. 11:8), a seasonable and honorable resurrection awaits them, Rev. 11:11.
Thus have I attempted a definite and brief answer to the Covenanter’s question; supposing that many other interrogatories from the same source, so far as they are at all relevant, are equally answered. And I hope the reader will find what I have said intelligible; if otherwise, it will be easy to amplify almost any sentence, so as to cover a page, in form of illustration.
Tranquillity, March 19th, 1857.
[The above article appeared in the Reformed Presbyterian magazine, edited by Moses Roney, May, 1857, pp. 94-96.]
*This article is followed by a response from the editor of the Covenanter, James M. Willson. Willson made remarks on various portions wherever such figures appear in parentheses. [back]
**These, and the like “remarks,” we do not at present notice, that the reader’s attention be not distracted [DS]. [back]
***Mr. Steele, by stating this, refutes the notion that Mr. Willson alleges after his 11th “remark,” (in conclusion), that Mr. Steele had “no knowledge of any of these difficulties until it became necessary to look up some reasons for the schism which he created,” some fifteen years before, in 1840. In fact, as pastor Steele points out, this concern had been brought before synod one year prior to the declining of the church judicatories by pastors Robert Lusk and David Steele, with several ruling elders. [back]
****These numbers correspond to the “remarks” which follow, by the editor of the Covenanter, Mr. J.M. Willson. [back]