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A Review of the Errors of Seceders upon the Head of Civil Magistracy.


A Review of the Errors of Seceders upon the Head of Civil Magistracy.

James Dodson

[A Review of]


[from The Covenanter, May, 1847, pp. 312-317.]

The March number of this periodical [The Evangelical Repository] contains a long and elaborate article, exhibiting some principles which have been maintained and taught by Seceders, upon the subject of the dominion of Christ, and of the magistrate’s power. And, certainly, the article does prove, that not a few errors have been held, and not a little inconclusive reasoning has been perpetrated, both by ministers, and courts too, of the Secession church. We remember a time, when it was considered so injurious to the good name of the Associate church to charge them with holding certain doctrines, as to demand a public vindication by the synod itself. We refer to the correspondence carried on between that synod, and the Reformed Presbyterian, some twenty years ago, in regard to some statements in the Testimony of the latter, said to exhibit improper views of Secession principles. We have lived, however, to see these very doctrines avowed and defended by influential members of that body. For example. The purchase, by the Lord Jesus Christ, of a new covenant right to temporal mercies for believers, has been repeatedly denied in the pages of the Repository, and on the floor of the convention of Reformed churches, and the same periodical endorses the error of Gillespie, that “Christ, as Mediator, reigns over the church only.”

But, while we admit, yea, affirm, that not a few errors have been held and taught by Seceders, we do still believe, that the original Seceders, and some of their followers all along, were incomparably more sound than the most of those who now bear their name. Take a few examples. And first, we quote from Erskine’s (E[benezer]) Sermon on Ex, xxiii. 20, 21, preached in 1734.

“Behold I send an Angel before thee,” &c. “This Angel was none other than Christ, the uncreated Angel of the covenant. This name we find frequently ascribed unto Christ, to show his absolute authority, that he has all power in heaven and in earth, and the armies of both under his command.”—“The name of God is in Him, as Mediator, in a way of donation and derivation: He has a delegate authority—a derived fulness as Mediator; for it pleased the Father that in Him should all fulness dwell, and God hath given Him to be Head over all things to the church.”—“Trust Him with the government of the world in this dark and cloudy day, in which the nations are shaking and staggering like a drunken man, for his Father hath lodged the reins of the world’s government in his hand.”—“The Angel that bears his Father’s name, and who utters the voice of God, is crying to the powers and potentates of the earth at this day, ‘ By me kings reign, and princes decree justice, it is I that set up one and cast down another.’”

We quote again, from M’Crie’s statement, p. 130.

“Though the institution of civil magistrates is from God as the supreme Lord and King of all the world, and not properly from Christ as Mediator; yet a right to have the kingdoms of this world rendered subservient and tributary to his spiritual kingdom, in the visible church, belongs to him as Mediator. And as he, by his power in the management of the kingdom of providence committed to him, will bring them into this state; so it is the duty of those kingdoms, and their rulers, to be actively subservient and tributary unto his kingdom, by advancing its interests. ‘The shields of the earth belong unto God,’ who ‘is gone up with a shout,’ and who reigneth over the heathen, and he hath a right to their service. In Psalm ii. we have the Father’s solemn introduction of Christ, as his king whom he had set upon his holy hill of Zion, unto the kings and rulers of the earth, with injunctions to them to serve him in this character. ‘Be wise now, therefore, O ye kings,’ &c. This is an exhortation and command to rulers to lay aside that enmity and opposition which they had managed against Christ and his kingdom, and to do homage and service unto him. If the question be asked, in what character are they to serve Christ? It may be answered by proposing another. In what character did they oppose him? Was it not in their public character as rulers? Shall we suppose, when they were reprehended in their public character for opposing Christ, that the exhortation to serve him respects merely their private character as individuals? Shall not the honour and homage to be paid to God’s own king, be as conspicuous and decided as was the ignominy which was poured on him?”

Again, says Stevenson, “Offices of Christ,” p. 384,

“We are not, however, to suppose that none are under obligation to the law, as the law of Christ, but those who have formally joined themselves to the church. All those who have heard his-gospel preached and his laws published, are bound to embrace the former and submit to the latter, and they cannot refuse to do so with impunity. It is on this account that we would not confine our Lord’s mediatory administration, either as a prophet or as a king, to the church as an organized body, but extending to all who have heard of Christ, and have access to the means of grace.” “Nations and their rulers, who are favoured with the religion of Jesus, are bound to recognise his supremacy in the church, as his free, spiritual, and independent kingdom, and his headship over all things for her benefit.” “God has put principalities and powers under Christ, and wherever this is known by supernatural revelation, these powers are bound, as they would avoid the effects of his displeasure, to recognise his supremacy, and cheerfully submit to his authority, as the ‘King of kings, and Lord of lords.’”

Again, says another Secession minister,

“God has most expressly enjoined nations and their rulers to acknowledge and honour his Son Jesus Christ, and to employ their national and civil authority in protecting and supporting his church. ‘He that ruleth over men must be just, ruling in the fear of God.’ This passage does not merely contain the intimation of God’s will to the individual who may be at the head of the state, as to his conduct in that public station,—it is an intimation of God’s will to the nation. … What is the simple meaning of nations as such doing homage to Christ? The meaning is plainly this, that nations and their rulers are to receive, the Bible at his hand, and instead of framing their constitution and constructing their laws on the principle of some false religion, or on the principles of infidelity, or merely according to the imagination of their own hearts, they are to form their constitution and laws, and conduct all their administrations on the principles of the Bible; to the honour of God and the good of the community, … Every nation and kingdom that refuseth, in its constitution and laws, to do homage to God and his Messiah, or in other words, does not make a national profession of Christianity, shall perish. Zech. xiv. 16, 19.”[1]

The following is not only valuable as testimony, but as argument.

“Since all power is put under him (Messiah,) the power of nations, as such, must also be put under him; and since all power so put under him for the sake of \he church, the power of nations, as such, must be put under him for this purpose, and should therefore be exerted to promote the church’s welfare. It may, however, be objected, that when all things are said to be put under the Redeemer, We are only to understand by this, that he overrules all beings and events, so that they are ultimately conducive to his church’s prosperity; and, therefore, though nations lie put under him, they are so only passively and not actively. To this we answer. First, that such an interpretation of these passages is wholly unwarranted. When all things are said to be put under him, it implies, that they are put under him with all their powers; but rational creatures, being endowed with will and activity, must be put under him, not only as passive instruments, but as active and voluntary agents. It is therefore the duty of the whole moral creation, actively to use all the influence they are possessed of for advancing the Redeemer’s cause, and the duty of nations as such to do the same. This is evident in the Second Place from what we are told in scripture about the angels. They are also put under Christ for the church’s sake. In the same sense, then, in which they are put under him, are all orders of moral beings under him. . . . From the fact, that angels offer homage unto Christ, we are taught, that not only the powers which derive their origin from Christ as the head of the church, but those also that are derived exclusively from God as Creator, ought to offer homage unto Christ as Mediator. From which it follows, that nations and their rulers, though deriving their origin from God as Creator, ought to offer homage unto his Son as Redeemer. … To say that civil government, as such, has nothing to do with religion, is to make it an anomaly in creation,—is to free it from the. universal law of the divine empire,—is to make it a neutral power in the contest between the ‘Father of Lights’ and the ‘Prince of Darkness.’ . . . It (voluntaryism) takes from the Saviour’s head the diadem of the nations. It seeks to rase from his vesture and his thigh the written name, King of kings and Lord of lords. It rears the standard of revolt in one of the provinces of his dominions, proclaiming unto kings and nations that they are independent. ‘Upon his head there are many crowns;’ and in opposing voluntaryism, the motto on our banner is, ‘FOR ALL THE CROWNS OF THE MEDIATOR.’”[2]

We quote from the “Testimony of the Original Seceders,” 3d Ed., pp. 61, 63, 72.

“Magistracy, like every thing belonging to the kingdom of Providence, is put into Christ’s hand to be ordered in subserviency to the good of his church; and it is secured by a promise that he will order it for the active advancement of the interests of his kingdom. … It is, the duty of Christian nations and rulers to regulate the whole of their conduct by the revealed will of God. … We condemn the conduct of the nation at the Revolution, in leaving the reformed constitution buried and neglected; and in not looking out for magistrates who should concur with them in the maintenance of the true religion, as formerly settled, and rule them by laws subservient to its advancement. … It is peculiarly incumbent on every civilized state, whereinto Christianity is introduced, to study and bring to pass that civil government among them, in all the appurtenances of its constitution and administration, run in agreeableness to the Word of God; be subservient to the spiritual kingdom of Jesus Christ, and to the interests of true religion, and reformation of the church.”

And, finally, we offer the declaration of a member of the synod of Original Seceders, to whom, in an article published in the Scottish Presbyterian, for September, 1844, we are indebted for the above quotations:—He says.

It may be thought that the reference to the Mediator’s moral dominion over the nations, in our Testimony, is but scanty and brief. Perhaps it is so. That a more full statement of it has not been made, cannot with candour, I think, be attributed to any want of affection for the doctrine on the part of the Original Seceders, when it is known, that during the whole of their existence, and more especially during the last forty years, their chief contendings and sacrifices were made in behalf of this doctrine. The principle of civil establishments pf religion which they have been endeavouring to maintain—first, against their New Light brethren, and more recently against the voluntaries, rests exclusively on the doctrine of the Mediator’s moral dominion over the nations. And I am glad to find that it is now recognised by this, its more appropriate designation.

There is another point, namely, covenanting, to which this writer directs his attention. Among other things, he says,

In the article on the British Covenants in your number for November last, there is a reference once and again, to the renovation of the covenants by Seceders. In the first passage it is said, “The religious, but not the civil part of these covenants was recognised, and occasionally renewed by the Secession church.” And in the other passage, your correspondent states, that “Seceders, in the opinion of the Reformed Presbyterians, were greatly deficient in fidelity, by omitting altogether the civil part of the covenants.” Now, 1 beg leave to assure you, that this is not correct. It is no doubt true that it is in their ecclesiastical character, (and they do not see how they could, in present circumstances, do it in any other character,) that Seceders renew the covenants. But in renewing them, they recognise them in all their entireness, the civil, as well as the ecclesiastical parts, and declare them to be, in all their entireness, still binding upon the nation and upon the church, and upon all ranks and classes, and upon themselves in particular, as members of both civil and ecclesiastical society. … In fact, one special part of the controversy between the Original Seceders and the New Light Seceders turned on this very point, the owning of the civil as well as the religious part of the covenants. “Hence,” says the late Mr. Chalmers of Haddington, in reply to Mr. Culbertson, “by their bond they (the Associate Presbytery,) avouched our public solemn covenants, in their whole matter and meaning, as binding upon them and the land. They never thought of the unnatural expedient of dividing either of these covenants in order to make their adherence to-them to coalesce with the Independent notion about mere church covenanting, as the only lawful covenanting under the New Testament.

Do Seceders in this country embrace these views? In making these quotations, we have drawn upon some of the greatest names in the Secession church. Still, we do not assert that their views were, in all respects, as clear and decided as they might have been, much less do we mean to vindicate the body of the later generations of Seceders, from the stigma of holding doctrines so dishonouring to Christ, as those which are taught in some of the quotations given by the [Evangelical] Repository. We believe, that such doctrines have not only been held, but that they have been the prevailing doctrines for a long time past But we must remember that it was the prevalence of these errors, and others necessarily growing out of them, which led to the constitution of the Old Burgher synod, and afterwards, of the synod of Original Seceders,—these bodies adhering to the platform, or very nearly so, established by the Erskines. The Repository quotes from Dr. Paxton. Does it assent to the following?

While he leaves those who dissent from the church, of which he is a member, in the full enjoyment of their personal rights, he may justly refuse to employ them, in places of power and trust, and is entitled to bestow such favours upon those whose sentiments, in every respect, are most congenial with his own.

So much, for what some may consider to be a little out of our latitude—the vindication of the Erskines, and the M’Cries. Now, a word for ourselves. The Repository says, in the same article,

It is one thing to “build the tombs of the prophets, and garnish the sepulchres of the righteous,” to be loud in our praises of their virtues, and our declarations of attachment to their principles, and indignation at those who would say aught against them, and quite another thing to imitate their virtues, and profess and maintain their principles. As an illustration, we may just refer to an excellent article in the last number of the Covenanter, setting forth the excellencies of Mr. George Gillespie. In this article his celebrated work, entitled Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, is referred to as a triumphant refutation of Erastianism. Now we venture to affirm that if the views maintained by this distinguished individual, on the subject of the Mediatorial dominion and Magistracy, were published by a writer of the present day, the Covenanter and some other periodicals would denounce them as intolerably corrupt.

This is very courteous. But it is in keeping with that charity which always attends error. We have never claimed Gillespie on this point, and wherever we see them, we hold that there is an “intolerable corruption” in such doctrines as the Repository teaches. As we said in a former number, we pin our faith to no man’s sleeve. But we do honour Gillespie as an eminently able, godly, and faithful reformer. Yes and we hold his principles far more closely than those do, who charge us with merely garnishing his tomb. For, 1. Gillespie did not understand his principles as freeing the magistrate from the obligation to promote the kingdom of Christ 2. He maintained, and most ably defended the doctrine, that the magistrate is bound to vindicate both tables of the law. 3. He also taught, that the magistrate should protect and defend the church and the true religion, and discountenance and restrain false worship.[3] 4. Gillespie was a sound Covenanter,—having sworn the covenants, National and Solemn League. 5. And finally, he assented, ex animo, to the whole Confession of Faith—to those portions which are about to be altered to suit the unchristian opinions of the age. In a word, Gillespie’s views were, by many degrees, nearer to ours, than to those of the Repository. He was in error in one point, and in this the Repository follows him, while it rejects nearly all the truths on the same subject, held, and held strenuously by Gillespie. Indeed, he would have abhorred—he did abhor and oppose with all his might, the cherished voluntaryism of those who would cover their errors by the shadow of his honoured name. But while we admit that this eminent divine was in error as to this doctrine, we do not allow that he can be claimed by the Repository as entirely on its side. It is impossible, that Gillespie could have had in his mind the same doctrine which it is now attempted to prop up with his name; for he held views, some of which we have quoted, totally inconsistent with the principle as now held and taught. Moreover, in this very work,—Aaron’s Rod, chap, vi.,—he says, stating the question between him and his opponent, as to the nature of the magistrate’s commission,—

“The question is, Whether the Christian magistrate be a governor in the church vice Christi, in the room and stead of Jesus Christ, as he is Mediator? or, (which is all one,) Whether the rise, derivation, and tenure of Christian magistracy be from Jesus Christ under this formal consideration, as he is Mediator and Head of the church? or, (which is also the same,) Whether Jesus Christ, by virtue of the authority and power of government, which as Mediator and as God-man, he received of the Father, hath substituted and given commission to govern the church in subordination to Him, as he governeth it in subordination to his Father? In all these things Mr. Hussey is for the affirmative, I am for the negative.”

He was contending against Erastianism. This was the point all the time in Gillespie’s mind. Indeed, he tells us, that the preceding chapter, in which he discusses the dominion of Christ in the abstract, is only introductory to this one, and it is only dealing fairly with him, to keep this fact constantly in view in examining his writings. But again, he says, in the same connexion,

“The question is not—whether the Christian magistrate be useful and subservient to the kingdom of Jesus Christ, even as he is Mediator and King of the church; for in this, also, I hold the affirmative; that is, that as every man in his own calling, parents, masters, servants, merchants, soldiers, &c., being Christians, or the magistrate in his eminent station, being a Christian, is obliged to endeavour the propagation of the gospel, and the good and benefit of the church of Christ.”

“Obliged,” by what law? By whose law? Certainly by the law of the Bible—by the law of a Three-one God, in covenant, or, in other words, in Christ: for in no other way than in the Bible is the gospel made known, much less the duty of any to “propagate” it; and to no other hands than those of Christ, as Mediator, is committed the propagation of the gospel—“Go—preach—lo! I am with you.” So Gillespie understood it. In this way only could he have held his principles respecting the duty of the magistrate. Hence, he says, “every man in his own calling.” Grant us that the civil magistrate is to submit to Christ in his “calling,” as “parents,” as such, are in theirs,—and this is Gillespie’s doctrine—and we have the substance of all we ask for. Were Gillespie on the footstool now, where would he be found? With those who are breaking down what he laboured to establish? Verily, no. They would be repudiated by him, and he in turn would be their abhorrence. Who they are—these things being so—who garnish his tomb, as the Pharisees did those of the prophets—judge ye.


[1] Expostulation in Relation to the Voluntary Controversy, by Rev. B. Laing.

[2] Lectures on National Establishments, by Rev. Wm. White, pp. 22. 24. 29.

[3] Some of his views we subjoin, that our readers may judge.

“The orthodox churches believe also, and do willingly acknowledge, that every lawful magistrate, being by God himself constituted the keeper and defender of both tables of the law may and ought first and chiefly to take care of God’s glory, and (according to his place, or in his manner and way) to preserve religion when pure, and to restore it when decayed and corrupted: and also to provide a learned and godly ministry, schools also, and synods, as likewise to restrain and punish as well atheists, blasphemers, heretics, and schismatics, as the violators of justice and civil peace.

“Wherefore the opinion of those sectaries of this age is altogether to be disallowed, who, though otherwise insinuating themselves craftily into the magistrate’s favour, do deny unto him the authority, and right of restraining heretics and schismatics, and do hold and maintain that such persons, how much soever hurtful and pernicious enemies to true religion and to the church, yet are to be tolerated by the magistrate, if so be he conceive them to be such as no way violate the laws of the commonwealth, and in nowise disturb the civil peace.”—Gillespie’s 111 Propositions, &c., p. 12, ed. 1844.