Chapter IV

The Preliminary Act

No other document of our Church has elicited more discussion, as to its meaning and intent, than has the Preliminary, commonly called the Adopting Act. It has been represented as a compromise, as ambiguous in its terms, and as designed to admit of a considerable latitude of doctrinal sentiments among the ministry of the Church. Before entering upon the discussion of these points, it will be proper to ascertain, if possible, what is the precise question at issue, between the advocates of a liberal, and of a strict, adoption of the Confession of Faith.

The great body of the doctrines of the Confession and Catechisms, constitute a logical system, the several parts of which are so related to each other, that they must stand or fall together. The question, for example, between the doctrine of the utter inability of man since the fall, to keep the law of God, to repent of sin, or turn to God, and the doctrine that he has the natural ability, but wants the moral—that his inability is wholly of the will, and that men could turn to God, if they would, may seem, at the first glance, a very trivial matter. Yet, when traced out to its ultimate consequences, it involves almost every, doctrine of theology, every truth of the Gospel. The one view supposes the fall and ruin of the whole nature of man, in Adam; and it implies a necessity for the immediate and omnipotent agency of the Holy Spirit; creating the man anew in Christ Jesus. This, again, implies the union, by this Spirit, dwelling in them, of Christ and the believer. Thus, he, then, became responsible for his people’s sins, as the sins of his own body; and standing, in this light, at the bar of justice, he was made a true and proper vicarious satisfaction for their sins, and wrought for them a perfect righteousness. They, on the other hand—by virtue of this same union his members—are robed in his very righteousness; and, in it, stand justified at the bar of God, and admitted to the adoption of sons, by virtue of oneness with the First-born. In every direction, we might thus trace the ramifications of this system.

The other view implies and springs from the notion, that the fall was not a depravation of man’s entire nature, but only a perversion of his affections and his will; whilst his understanding and conscience are unimpaired. It involves the conclusion, that no omnipotent transforming agency is necessary, in order to the restoration of man, that all that is requisite is, that the truth be brought convincingly before the mind, so as to determine the will, in favor of the claims of God, that to this purpose, the Spirit is only necessary as an enlightening and persuading agent, exercising no transforming new creating power, nor acting immediately on the heart, but only, mediately, through the Word. Thus, the spiritual union of the believer and Christ is ignored and excluded, his vicarious satisfaction is thereupon denied; the doctrine of justification rejected; and the whole gospel scheme overthrown. The very nature and holiness of God, himself, are presented in a false and distorted light, from these premises; as, his is conceived to be a justice that may be set aside, and a mercy that strives against and over comes justice; for sin is supposed to be pardoned, without satisfaction to the law; and sinners are saved, although the records of justice still for ever exhibit the uncanceled charges against them.

Such are the logical connections of these several opinions respecting the question of man’s inability by nature. And these diverse consequences, not only re sult from the specific positions taken upon that point, but each several proposition, in these two schemes im plies and logically demands all the others, in them respectively. If the skillful naturalist is able, from a single bone, to reconstruct the entire animal to which it belonged, even though, before, nondescript—much more certainly, can the intelligent theologian from any specific proposition; an what may be rewarded, popularly, as the minor points in systematic theology, determine the system to which it belongs, and reconstruct the entire scheme. Not only, is this the case; but, it is farther true, in the history of doctrine, that all departures from the faith, perhaps, without exception, have originated in error on some one of these subordinate points. Men do not, at once, apostatize from the great cardinal truths of the Gospel, until, first, their faith has been perverted and the foundations removed, by error cherished on some of the subordinate related truths.

It is in. view of these facts and principles that their position is taken, by those who advocate the enforcing of a strict adoption of the Confession of Faith, by the ministry of the Church. They, do not mean to assert, that everything contained in the Confession is infallibly true. The question, for example, whether the pro duction of the universe out of nothing, took place within the six natural days of the Mosaic record, the question of the marriage of a deceased wife’s sister—such as these, are questions, simply, of biblical interpretation, as to points of history and law, the decision of which, however made, affects in no wise, any one doctrine of the system of revealed and saving truth; whether as to the nature of God or of man, the nature and demerit of sin, or the plan of salvation. Some errors, therefore, on such points may be tolerated without danger to the Gospel.

Strict subscribers, further, do not mean to assert that the language of the Confession is, in all cases, unquestionably the best that could be selected, to state the scriptural truth, on the subjects presented., This idea is precluded by the fact that the same doctrines are stated in the Constitution, in three several forms—in the Confession and the two Catechisms; to which the Westminster Assembly, and the Scotch Church added a fourth, in “The Sum of Saving Knowledge,” which they appended to the other standards.

But the position taken by those who insist upon a strict adoption of the Confession is, that, whilst due allowance is made for the imperfection of man, which attaches to all he does, yet the doctrines, all of them, of the connected system set forth in the Confession, are the very and infallible truth of God, and gospel of salvation. In this view, they comprehend, not only the confessedly great truths, but those of minor con sideration; as divinely revealed; necessary to the others, and parts of the system; which, without them, must fall to pieces. Besides these, another consideration enters into the position thus stated. When the Church shall have been supplied with a ministry, who have been admitted on the ground of permitting some unimportant departures from the system of the standards, these will be bound, in consistency, to admit others, whose position is a little farther removed than their own. Otherwise, they set up their own schemes, as more sacred and binding than that of the Confession itself; as they claim for themselves the right to go beyond the bounds set by it. The second generation would therefore depart a little farther than the first; and so on, until utter apostasy is the inevitable result; as is demonstrated, by too many lamentable instances.

Thus, the position of those who require strict adoption, is easily ascertained and defined. Those, on the contrary, who insist upon more liberal terms—rejecting the standard given in the Confession, are set afloat, without the possibility of defining, or taking, any specific position, as to the extent to which divergence is to be allowed. Whilst some would resist any very serious departure, others would claim the right to reject every thing, but “the great doctrines.” Of this, we shall have, in the subsequent history, abundant illustrations.

We return to the consideration of the Preliminary Act. Was the paper a compromise? If, by this word, it is intended that the language was carefully weighed and guarded, so as to avoid just objections from those who hesitated upon the measure, it is readily conceded. But if, by compromise, it be meant that, in deference to opposing sentiments, the supporters of Thomson’s overture waived any of their claims, or accepted, or were supposed to accept, less than was asked in that paper, we see not a shadow of ground for the assumption. What was the question at issue between the author and opposers of the overture? Thomson’s proposal was that the Confession be adopted as the confession of faith of the Church; and that if any minister take upon him to teach or preach anything contrary to any of its articles,” unless first he propose the said points to the Presbytery or Synod to be by them discussed,” he shall be censured. Here, evidently, it was distinctly contemplated, that more or less diversity of sentiment must be expected to exist, upon some points, among those who could cordially unite in the adoption of the Confession.

It is assumed that disagreement with that standard within certain limits, was allowable; whilst greater departures would be censurable; and the extent of allowable departure was left, as yet, undefined. Further, the Presbytery and Synod are designated, to the exclusion of individual private judgment, as entitled, first, to determine that question, in each case, as it should arise. Such was the whole extent of the demand of the Scotch members; in precise accordance with what we have above stated, as to the difference between questions of systematic theology and those statements of the Confession which relate to history, law, ethics, and order.

On the other hand, as we have seen, Dickinson arrayed himself, absolutely, against subscription, in any form whatever; a position which was, no doubt, hastily taken; and which was undoubtedly surrendered, altogether, by him, in consenting to the Adopting Act. This point being given up, there was really no further room for controversy. When the parties came to under stand each other, the whole matter reduced itself to a question of words. The author of “Dickinson on the Five Points” had not acted in the interest of a lax theology. His objection was not to the importance and necessity of soundness in the faith, nor to the authority of the Church to insist on and enforce it. This he strenuously urged, in his very argument against the overture. What be denied was the efficacy of adopting the Confession, as a public standard, in securing this. And, the question on that point being yielded, he only further required that the adoption should be in such form as would not tend to infringe the liberty of God’s people, by any seeming usurpation of the regal authority of Christ. This was accomplished by the distinct repudiation of any such authority, stated in the pre amble to the Preliminary Act; and by the allowance that absolute agreement with the Confession was not necessary, on non-essential points; guarding, at the same time, the door thus opened, by the express pro vision that the Presbyteries and Synod were to be the judges of what, in the Confession, is immaterial, and what essential. But, in all this, there was no compromise, on the part of the advocates of subscription. They had not asked the Synod to assume to itself power to add to the law of Christ; nor proposed to exalt the Confession to a level with his Word. As promptly as any, would they have united in resisting, even to death, any such attempt. What was granted in the Adopting Acts, was precisely what the overture proposed; and it was, therefore, so cordially accepted by the authors of that paper.

But the Preliminary Act is charged with ambiguity. There are certain points in it, set forth, it will be admitted, with unambiguous clearness—That the Confession, as a whole, is in accordance with the Word of God—That it is not infallibly true, in all its details—That all the doctrines therein contained are not of equal im portance; but that whilst some forms of error are comparatively harmless, there are others of more serious import—That there is, therefore, room for allowable and innocent diversity of sentiment, among the minis try, on some points; and necessity for agreement on others; and that no individual is at liberty to oppose any doctrine, whatever, of the Confession, upon the assumption that it is non‑essential, without first submit ting the question to the adjudication of the church courts, and conforming himself to their judgment—All this very clearly appears in the paper.

The ambiguity of the document consists in its failing to indicate the line of demarcation between the essential and non-essential doctrines. A regard to the precise object of the paper, itself, and its position in the series of transactions will shed light on this point. The paper was cautionary in its design and origin. The suspicions of sinister motives, which, Dickinson and his friends entertained, at first, against the authors of the movement, were now, no doubt laid aside. But the reputation of the Scotch for pertinacity and exclusive ness, on small points, was as great then as now. Situated as “the English” members of the Synod were, they could not anticipate what minute point might be forced into undue prominence by their brethren, when the Confession should have been established as the standard of the Church. The Westminster articles, on the relations of Church and State and the powers of the civil magistrate in sacred things, which have. since been altered by our Church, then stood in their original form. The attempt might be made to put the most objectionable sense upon these articles, and to thrust them upon the Synod as essential parts of the book, and terms of ministerial fellowship. And, further, when the members of the Synod should be called on to declare their acceptance of the Confession, it was impossible to anticipate which of the most valuable members might prove to hold some opinion as to “doctrine, worship or government,” not in strict accordance with the teachings of the Confession; and which, however unimportant, might be made the ground of his exclusion. Thus, at so early a date as 1707, a difference of sentiment as to “worship,” had been developed. between the Presbytery and Mr. Andrews, respecting the stated expository reading of the Scriptures, as part of the Sabbath morning services; and it is doubtful whether he ever, on this point, conformed to the Scotch mode. The difficulties in New York, involved many questions between the stricter discipline of the Scotch, and the looser views of others.

It was, as the breakwater, erected for protection against a possible tide of violence, coming in at the close, on points such as these, as a safeguard to the minority, until the designs and ends of the majority were more fully known, that the ambiguous phrases of the Preliminary Act were adopted. And when, after free and full conference, the entire Synod proved to be perfectly harmonious, in the interpretation given to the questionable clauses of chapters twenty and twenty‑three, and the unqualified adoption of the rest, the ambiguous expressions had already fulfilled their design, and were cast aside, as obsolete; the unanimity of the Synod in the unqualified adoption of the Confession, being recognized, as we shall presently see, as superseding the vague and ambiguous generalities of the Preliminary Act.

Further, it is to be considered that, even apart from the special and obvious intent of the indefiniteness of the expressions of the Preliminary Act, it is impossible, from the very nature of the case, to be much more pre cise and definite than are the phrases in question. That there is just ground for the distinction of essential and non-essential doctrines of religion is conceded by all the parties. But to trace by anticipation, the line of demarcation between them, and state precisely how far and upon what points diversity may be tolerated, and where it becomes censurable; is beyond the skill of human intelligence. The Synod declined to attempt it; but left each case, as it should arise, to be determined on its own merits.

The question remains, whether the Adopting Act was designed to establish a rule of strict conformity to the connected doctrines of the Confession, or to allow a liberal margin of departure from them. On this point, the only information contained in the Preliminary Act, is included under two heads—that, as the Confession then stood, there were in it articles not essential and necessary; respecting which, diversity of sentiment would not necessarily operate exclusion from the ministry—and, that, even on these points, parties must make known, to the proper court of the Church, any such opinions, and submit themselves to its judgment, respecting them.

In the Adopting Act, itself, we do not find the mem bers to have availed themselves of this provision, on any point, except those having reference to the civil magistrate. They unanimously agreed in the solution of all the scruples that any of them had to make against any articles and expressions in the Confession and Catechisms, and in declaring the said Confession and Cate chisms, to be the confession of their faith, “excepting only” those clauses.

Here, the comprehension and the exception are both significant. The members did not reject the excepted clause. But those clauses were obscure and susceptible of an obnoxious sense. This sense is specified, in order to its rejection. The scrupulous particularity, here, is significant as to the unqualified manner in which, otherwise, the book was received.

The Synod, then, started out with the adoption, with out exception or reservation, of every chapter and article of the Confession and Catechisms, by the unanimous voice of the members; a caution only being entered against what many others, as well as Blair, believed to be a false interpretation of two or three clauses, which are now no longer in the book.

For themselves, this was their only recourse to the distinction between necessary and non‑necessary arti cles. Otherwise, they asked no relaxation of the strictest rule of interpretation. What did they require of others? Were candidates to be indulged with a larger liberty than, thus, the members required for themselves?

In the proceedings of 1729, this point is left unde termined. The next Synod adopted the following min ute: “Whereas, Some persons have been dissatisfied at the manner of wording our last year’s agreement about the Confession, etc., supposing some expressions not sufficiently obligatory upon intrants:

“Overtured, That the Synod do now declare, that they understand these clauses that respect the admission of intrants or candidates, in such a sense as to oblige them to receive and adopt the Confession and Catechisms, at their admission, in the same manner and as fully as the members of Synod did, that were then present—Which overture was unanimously agreed to by the Synod.”

The Synod which thus unanimously expounded the Adopting Act was a full meeting, and of as high authority as that of the preceding year. And its interpretation of the Act, even although it had been mistaken as to the intention of the authors of it, is of equal author ity, and therefore, fixes unequivocally the effect of the Act, with respect to intrants. They, too, must receive and adopt it as did the members of Synod, at the first, without reservation, except as to the designated clauses. Nor have we any reason to imagine that this interpretation of the intent of the Adopting Act was at all erroneous. Of the eighteen ministers who united in adopt ing the Act, twelve were now present, and unanimously concurred in the interpretation here given; and of the seventeen now in attendance, but seven could be counted as of the stricter Scotch party. The exposition now given was not, therefore, in the interest of that party, nor in violation of the wishes and sentiments of the others; but must be taken as a true account of the understanding of the members, at the time of the pas sage of the Adopting Act, as to its effect, with relation to intrants.

When the members originally united in the Act, “one declared himself not prepared.” This was Mr. Elmer, a new member, who now, with Mr. Morgan and Mr. Pemberton, who were before absent, reported “that they have declared before the Presbytery, and desire that their names be inserted in our Synodical records.”

Also, “Mr. David Evens, having withdrawn from the Synod three years ago, upon a protest put in by him and some other brethren, declared his hearty con cern for his withdrawal, and desired to be received as a member again. And, he having proposed all the scruples he had to make about any articles of the Confession and Catechisms, etc., to the satisfaction of the Synod, and declared his adopting the Westminster Con fession of Faith and Catechisms, agreeably to last year’s Adopting Act, he was unanimously received in, as a member again; and for his ease, is joined to the Pres bytery of Philadelphia.” The occasion of his former protest and withdrawal does not appear. The Minutes of 1727, only state that “a paper of protest was brought into the Synod, after all business was done, by Messrs, Bones, David Evans, Webb, and Hubbell, which was ordered to be kept, in retentis.”

Thus, with patient forbearance and prudence, but firmly and decidedly, were the lines drawn, and the bounds of the camp fixed and marked.

For two or three years, without any special order on the subject, reports came up of the compliance of in coming ministers with the Adopting Act. It was then, in 1734;

“Ordered, that the Synod make a particular inquiry, during the time of their meeting every year, whether such ministers as have been received as members, since the foregoing meeting of the Synod, have adopted, or have been required by the Synod or by the respective Presbyteries to adopt, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, with the Directory, according to the Acts of the Synod made some years since, for that purpose; and that, also, the report made to the Synod, in answer to said inquiry, be recorded in the minutes.”

From this date, the inquiry here indicted was regularly made, and the result recorded. At least, until the schism of 1741, no man was admitted into the ministry of the Church, without his adoption of the Confession, according to the strict terms of the final Act of 1729, being ascertained and entered upon the records of Synod.

It is, here, further worthy of notice, that while the doctrinal standards were thus strictly adopted and enforced, a different rule was applied to the Discipline and Directory. These, as we have seen, were pronounced, by the Synod, to be agreeable, “in substance,” to the Word of God. The meaning of this significant distinction, we shall hereafter see stated by a most com petent committee of the Synod itself.

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