Chapter VII

The Later Doctrinal History

Of the sentiments of the Old Side Synod of Philadelphia, it is scarcely necessary to speak. None question their strict conformity to the Scotch type. Immediately upon the withdrawal of the New Side, in 1741, it was “overtured, That every member of this Synod, whether minister or elder, do sincerely and heartily receive, own, acknowledge, and subscribe, the Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as the confession of his faith and the Directory, as far as circumstances will allow and admit, in this infant Church, for the rule of church order. Ordered that every session do oblige their elders, at their admission to do the same.

” This was readily approved, nemine contradicente.”*

When the New York members, with the consent of the Philadelphia Synod, withdrew, to unite with the other party, one of the motives determining their action undoubtedly was to facilitate the reunion of the two bodies. In submitting their proposal to separate, they say, “This they desire to do, with the consent of this body, that they may not be thought to set up, and act in opposition to this, and that there may be a foundation for the two Synods to consult and act in mutual concert with one another hereafter, and maintain love and brotherly kindness with each other.”

The Synod replied, that, “though we judge they have no just ground to withdraw from us, yet seeing they propose to erect themselves into a Synod at New York, and now desire to do this in the most friendly manner possible, we declare, if they or any of them do so, we shall endeavor to maintain charitable and Christian affections toward them, and show the same, upon all occasions, by such correspondence and fellowship as we shall think duty, and consistent with a good conscience.”

In accordance with the intention thus expressed, the Synod of New York at its first meeting appointed a committee, to correspond with the Synod of Philadelphia, which promptly responded to their communication.

In pursuance of the same pacific policy, an overture was introduced into the New York Synod, and adopted, in 1749, proposing that negotiations be opened with the Philadelphia Synod, upon the following fundamental terms.

“1. To preserve the common peace, we would propose, that all names of distinction, which have been made use of, in the late times, be for ever abolished.

“2. That every member assent unto and adopt the Confession of Faith and Directory, according to the plan formerly agreed to by the Synod of Philadelphia in the years _____ .

“3. That every member promise, that after any question has been determined by the major vote, he will actively concur or passively submit to the judgment of the body; but if his conscience permit him to do neither of these, that then he shall be obliged peaceably to withdraw from our Synodical communion, without any attempt to make a schism or division among us. Yet this is not intended to extend to any cases but those which the Synod judges essential, in matters .of doctrine or discipline.

“4. That all our respective congregations and vacancies be acknowledged as congregations belonging to the Synod, but continue under the care of the same Presbytery as now they are, until a favorable opportunity presents for an advantageous alteration.

“5. That we all agree to esteem and treat it as a censurable evil, to accuse any of our members of error in doctrine or immorality in conversation, any other wise than by private reproof; till the accusation has been brought before a regular judicature, and issued according to the known rules of our discipline.

In conformity with this overture, committees of the two Synods met. But the New York brethren, waiving all other matters, immediately insisted that the protest of 1741 should, by some authentic and formal act of the Synod of Philadelphia, be made null and void. The result was a heated discussion, and a reference to the respective Synods, to prepare and exchange, at their next sessions, specific proposals for union. “At the same time, these three principal things were especially ,recommended to the consideration of the respective Synods. 1. The protest. 2. That paragraph about essentials. 3. Of Presbyteries.”

“That paragraph about essentials,” has been supposed to allude to the Preliminary Act of 1729. But there is, here, no allusion to that paper. The phrase refers to the above third article of the fundamental terms proposed by the New York Synod, as the basis of negotiation. The point presented in that article involved the principle on which the New Brunswick brethren had been excluded; and presented, therefore, a material point to be adjusted, before reunion.

As we have already seen, the Old Side had charged the New with doctrinal error; and, on that ground, held them bound to withdraw, as having forfeited their right to sit in the Synod. But wherein did these doctrinal errors consist? In the use of some unguarded expressions, as to the necessity of “preparatory ungracious convictions,” in order to conversion; assurance of grace, which the believer must possess; a consciousness of the time of his conversion; and the rights of conscience, in opposition to the authority of the Church, etc.; points upon which diversity disappeared, as soon as the excitement had cooled, and men came to a dispassionate estimate of each other’s language. When the negotiations for union took place, the only difference of “doctrine” that survived was, as to the nature of the work, of which the churches had been recent witnesses. While the one party, looking only to the blessed results, in conversions multiplied, did not hesitate to pronounce it a glorious work of God’s grace, the others, looking too exclusively upon the unhappy concomitants, declared themselves unable to join in the high testimony, which their brethren earnestly sought to elicit from them. “You seem to insist,” said they, “on a joint testimony for such a glorious work of God, in the late religious appearances, as a term of union; by making it one of your proposals for peace and union; that you hope both Synods will go into such a testimony. How is this consistent with your former professed sentiments of the duty of forbearance, in said case, and with your declared sentiments, that no difference in judgment, in cases of plain sin and duty, and opinions relating to the great truths of religion; is sufficient reason why the differing member should be obliged to withdraw, unless the said plain duty or truth be judged, by the body, to be essential, in doctrine or discipline?”

To this, the New York Synod replied, that there was no inconsistency between their hoping to secure a joint testimony and “their declared sentiments that difference in judgment should not oblige a dissenting member to withdraw from our communion; unless the matter were judged, by the body, to be essential in doctrine or discipline. And this we must own is an important article with us, which we cannot any way dispense with; and it appears to us to be strictly Christian and scriptural, as well as Presbyterian ; otherwise, we must make everything that appears plain duty to us, a term of communion, which, we apprehend, the Scripture prohibits. And it appears plain to us, that there may be many opinions relating to the great truths of religion, that are not great themselves, nor of sufficient importance to be made terms of communion. Nor can these sentiments “open the door to an unjustifiable latitude in principles and practices,” any more than the apostolic prohibition of receiving them that are weak to doubtful disputations. What is plain sin and plain duty, in one’s account, is not in another’s; and the Synod has still in their power to judge what is essential and what is not.”

In a word, the question involved in these discussions, was not with respect to points of doctrinal theology, in the ordinary acceptation of the term, as those doctrines are defined in the Confession ; but as to questions of duty arising, from time to time, in the changing circumstances of the Church, such as those that connected themselves with the former state of awakening; and opinions on such questions as those mentioned above, opinions which have no formal determination in the Confession. In fact the whole discussion grew out of “that paragraph” in the New York fundamental terms, above cited, and related to acquiescence in decisions not, of the Confession, but, of the judicatories of the Church, upon questions arising in the course of their administration.

It is to be remembered, that it was pending these very discussions between the two Synods, that the Synod of New York affiliated itself, as we have seen, with the Church of Scotland, having already committed itself, so fully and variously, to the strictest maintenance of the doctrines of the Westminster standards.

The result of the negotiations between the Synods was their reunion, in 1758, on a basis which exhibits the “paragraph about essentials,” in its true position, and contained a recognition of the Westminster standards, even much stricter than that passed by the Synod of Philadelphia, immediately after the separation. The latter it will be remembered, was adopted, in response to the demand of the protestants, that the Acts of 1729 and 1736 should be enforced on all members of the Synod. The following are three. of the articles of reunion of 1758.

“I. Both Synods, having always approved and received the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Larger and Shorter Catechisms, as an orthodox and excellent system of Christian doctrine, founded on the Word of God, we do still receive the same as the confession of our faith, and also adhere to the plan of worship, government, and discipline, contained in the Westminster Directory; strictly enjoining it on all our members and probationers for the‑ministry, that they teach and preach according to the form of sound words in said Confession and Catechisms, and avoid and oppose all errors contrary thereto.

“II. That, when any matter is determined, by a major vote, every member shall either actively concur with, or passively submit to such determination; or, if his conscience permit him to do neither, he shall, after sufficient liberty modestly to reason and remonstrate, peaceably withdraw from our communion, without attempting to make any schism. Provided, always, that this shall be understood to extend only to such determinations as the body shall judge indispensable in doctrine or Presbyterian government.

“VI. That no Presbytery shall license or ordain, to the work of the ministry, any candidate, until he give them competent satisfaction, as to his learning, and experimental acquaintance with religion, and skill in divinity and cases of conscience; and declare his acceptance of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms as the confession of his faith, and promise subjection to the Presbyterian plan of government in the Westminster Directory.”

Another element of the evidence, as to the theology of this period, is found in the two cases of doctrinal controversy, which arose and were adjudicated by the Synod. They illustrate, in a very striking manner, the strictness of the doctrinal position maintained.

The first of these originated in some speculations of a minister from New England, on a subject which has been much discussed in that region, the lawfulness of seeking our eternal happiness from selfish motives. Gilbert Tennent was the life and soul of the New Side party, the party supposed to be advocates for liberal terms of subscription. Yet he it was who assailed Cowell for unsoundness on this subject, and brought him before the bar of Synod, on that ground.

The Rev. David Cowell had been called to the church in Trenton. Upon his trials for ordination, he submitted an exegesis on the question, “An lex natura sit sufficiens ad salutem.” (Is the light of nature sufficient to salvation?) Perhaps, in this paper, or in the examination which followed, he expressed himself in such terms as led to the imputation that he held that self‑love is the foundation of all obedience. Tennent opened a correspondence with him, on the subject; and, after a protracted discussion, called the attention of the Synod to the matter.

That body referred it to a committee, at the head of which was Dickinson. The committee reported, that though there were some incautious and unguarded expressions used by both the contending parties, yet they have ground to hope “that the principal controversy between them flows from their not having clear ideas of the subject they so earnestly debate about.” The committee then proceeded to make a statement of doctrine on the subject; to which both parties declared their assent, and the matter was dropped. The next year, however, Tennent declared himself dissatisfied with the conclusion of the affair, and requested that it be reopened; which the Synod declined to do. This was in 1749; and, at the same meeting, Mr. Tennent made this one of the principal grounds on which, in a paper, read by him to the Synod, he declared his suspicions that some of the members were unconverted.

First, their unsoundness in some principal doctrines of Christianity, that relate to experience and practice; as, particularly, in the following points:

“1st. That there is no distinction between the glory of God and our happiness ; that self‑love is the foundation of all obedience . . . .

“2d, That there is a certainty of salvation annexed to the labors of natural men . . .”

Of these points, Thomson justly says, “Although I will not take upon me to justify these expressions, as sound, in their most obvious meaning, yet I think it’s a very strange stretch of censoriousness and rash judging, to conclude the person unregenerate who useth them.”

But, judged by this criterion, and that of Tennent’s published works, what would have been his voice, as to unessential doctrines ? What feature of recent improvements upon the Westminster system would he have tolerated, under that head ?

The other case of doctrinal controversy, originated in New Brunswick Presbytery, in 1758, just before the re union. The Rev. Samuel Harker was charged with having vented some erroneous doctrines, and the case was referred to the Synod of New York, by which a committee was appointed to deal with him, as they should have opportunity, for his conviction. Every member of this committee belonged to the original New Side party. The efforts of the Synod were ineffectually continued, for five years after the union, to recover this member. In the mean time, he published a book enti tled, “An Appeal to the Christian World,” in which his sentiments were developed. This book was, by the Synod in 1762, referred to a committee, to examine and report upon it. They reported the next year, whereupon ” the Synod proceeded to consider Mr. Harker’s principles, collected from his book, by the committee, which are in substance as follows:

” 1. That the covenant of grace is in such a sense conditional, that fallen mankind, in their unregenerate state, by the general assistance given to all under the gospel, have a sufficient ability to fulfill the conditions thereof, and so, by their own endeavors to ensure to themselves regenerating grace and all saving blessings.

“2. That God has bound himself by promise, to give them regenerating grace, upon their fulfilling what he, (Mr. Harker,) calls, the direct conditions of obtaining it; and, upon the whole, makes a certain and an infallible connection between their endeavors and the aforesaid blessings.

” 3. That God’s prescience of future events, is previous to and not dependent on his decrees; that his decrees have no influence on his own conduct, and that the foresight of faith was the ground of the decree of election.

” It is further observed, that he often uses inaccurate, unintelligible, and dangerous, modes of expression, that tend to lead people into false notions of several important matters; as, that Adam was the federal father of his posterity, in the second covenant, as well as in the first; that the regenerate are not in a state of probation for heaven; and several such like.

“The Synod judge that these principles are of a hurtful and dangerous tendency, giving a false view to the covenant of grace, perverting it into a new modeled covenant of works, and misrepresents the doctrine of the divine decrees, as held by the best Reformed Churches; and, in fine, are contrary to the Word of God and our approved standards of doctrine.”

The Synod called in Mr. Harker, and “questioned him in many particulars;” and, after mature deliberation, suspended him from the ministry, and ordered “that all be duly warned not to receive his doctrines, nor admit his ministrations, until it shall please God to convince him of his mistakes, and to bring him to the acknowledgment of the truth, and recover him from the error of his ways.”

It would seem an easy matter to decide, from these two judicial cases, alone, as to the attitude of the Church, at that time, on the question involved in the phrasing of the Preliminary Act.

There was a signal occasion in her subsequent history, when the Synod was called upon, in a most responsible manner, to declare herself on this point.

In October, 1785, a convention met at New York, composed of commissioners from the Reformed Dutch, the Associate Reformed, and the, Presbyterian Synods, for the purpose of making arrangements for more intimate relations between the several bodies. At this convention the Reformed Dutch committee asked for an explicit statement, by each committee, of the formulas of doctrine and worship received by the churches, severally. The commissioners of the Synod of New York and Philadelphia were Drs. John Rodgers, Alexander McWhorter, and Samuel Smith, and Rev. Messrs. Nathan Kerr, and John Woodhull; men surely competent to speak on the subject. Their answer was approved by the Synod, and was in the following terms.

“The Synod of New York and Philadelphia adopt, according to the known and established meaning of the terms, the Westminster Confession of Faith as the confession of their faith; save that every candidate for the gospel ministry is permitted to except against so much of the twenty‑third chapter as gives authority to civil magistrates in matters of religion. The Presbyterian Church in America considers the Church of Christ as a spiritual society, entirely distinct from the civil government, having a right to regulate their own ecclesiastical policy, independently of the interposition of the magistrate.

“The Synod also receives the Directory for public worship and the form of Church Government, recommended by the Westminster Assembly, as in substance agreeable to the institutions of the New Testament. This mode of adoption we use, because we believe the general platform of our government to be agreeable to the sacred Scriptures; but we do not believe that God has been pleased so to reveal and enjoin every minute circumstance of ecclesiastical government and discipline, as not to leave room for orthodox churches of Christ, in these minutae, to differ, with charity, from one another.

“The rules of our discipline and the form of process in our church judicatures, are contained in Pardovan’s (alias Steuart’s) Collections, in conjunction with the acts of our own Synod; the power of which, in matters purely ecclesiastical, we consider as equal to the power of any Synod or General Assembly in the world. Our church judicatures, like those of the Church of Scotland, from which we derive our origins are church Sessions, Presbyteries and Synods: to which it is now in contemplation to add a National or General Assembly.”

Here is a distinct recognition of the authority of the Confession, in the sense of the minute of 1736; and a further most significant discrimination between the standards of doctrine and the rules of government. The latter may be adopted by candidates “for substance:” But no such liberty is allowed respecting the former.

In this paper, the Synod reports the contemplated erection of a General Assembly. It was, at the time, engaged in a revision of the standards, with that view; and the above statement is of peculiar significance in its bearing upon the events immediately following.

In the revision, the excepted clauses were corrected and after amendment of the Form of Government, and the Directory, the whole was adopted as the Constitution of our Church, the Confession of our faith, and the “standard of our doctrine, government, discipline, and worship.”

The purpose of this laborious inquiry has been to ascertain, from the authentic records, what has been the real attitude of our Church, as to the doctrines set forth in her standards. Has she received them strictly, as being a true and reliable exposition of the teachings of the Scriptures, in accordance with which she would have her people instructed, and her testimony maintained before the world? Or, has she held them as the point of departure; from the definitions of which her ministers are at liberty to diverge, according to the vagaries of their own fancies, provided they do not depart “essentially” from the system of truth. In a word, are they criteria of the orthodoxy of our ministry and the fidelity of their teachings; and, if they are not, how are the courts of the Church to determine what she holds to be necessary and essential, and what she allows to be indifferent; who are orthodox, and who heretical?

The facts are, that even the Preliminary Act did not, allow any divergence, whatever, from the standards, without submitting it to the courts of tile Church, and conforming to their judgment respecting it; that they minute of 1736, is in perfect harmony with the face of the record of 1729; that it was confessedly enforced until the division; that the Old Side party always adhered to it, and the New Side with reiterated emphasis endorsed it; and that, in 1785, it was recognized, with out question, as the established and universal law of the Church. The Rev. Samuel Blair, in 1741, had never; heard of a minister of the Synod who scrupled anything, in the Confession, except the clauses as to the magistrate. Tennent could not even tolerate a crude or ambiguous sentiment, on the efficacy of self‑love in impelling men to seek salvation: and when Harker published sentiments, innocent, compared with many which now find harbor under the Presbyterian name, he was, apparently, without a dissenting voice, excluded from the ministry.

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