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THE CONSISTENCY OF CHURCH STANDARDS WITH
II._WITH THE RIGHT OF PRIVATE JUDGMENT.
BY THE REV. JAMES 8. CANDLISH, M.A. Having in a former article endeavoured to show that the use of Confessions of Faith as subordinate standards in the Church is not inconsistent with the Protestant principle of the supremacy of Scripture, we intend now to consider the other objection commonly made to the use of such standards, their alleged inconsistency with that other equally important principle of Protestantism, the liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment.
And here we must observe at the outset that it is not so much the mere documents adopted by the Church, as the action of the Church in enforcing them by her discipline, that could ever be supposed to be a restriction upon the fullest freedom of thought and inquiry. A mere document by itself car: never act as such a restriction; and, on the other hand, it does not need any such document to enable an unscrupulous Church to perpetrate the most tyrannical invasion of the rights of conscience. Most of the persecutions of the Church of Rome were carried on when that Church had no authorized creed on the matters in question; and, on the other hand, few Churches have ever had so stringent a system of subscription as was in force until lately in the English Church, while yet the utmost latitude of opinion notoriously prevailed within its borders. It is not so much, then, against the mere use of Church standards as against the whole practice of exercising discipline for false teaching that this objection is really levelled. Indeed, much might be said to show that the adoption of a distinct and express formula as the test of orthodoxy is less unfavourable to liberty than to leave it to the discretion of the Church's rulers to decide on each particular case as it arises; for a definite standard, by the very fact of prescribing certain limits, secures liberty within these limits; and the fact of the terms of office being known beforehand makes the exclusion of a candidate a less hardship than if he were suddenly and unexpectedly rejected.
But we do not mean to rest the defence of creeds on such grounds as these, for we feel that, however they might be made good as technical answers to the objection we are considering, they do not really touch the actual difficulty of the question; for that there is a real difficulty in the matter we would be dispojed frankly to admit. Neither do we think that the objection is fully mer by some of the lines of argument that have been commonly used about it. In answering the objection we are considering, the defenders of Church standards have usually adopted such positions as these:-that the dignity and emoluments connected with the office of the ministry in an established Church are not common rights, to which all men have a claim, and of which they No. 223.—New Series.
cannot be deprived without injustice (for in that case, to withhold them on account of difference in religion would be intolerance), but are special privileges and endowments, wbich those who have created them may confer upon what persons and under what conditions they please: that any Church, whether established or not, being a voluntary society, has the power to make the conditions of membership, or of office, whatever may to them seem best ; and that, as no man has a natural or civil right to belong to such a society, he suffers no persecution or infringement of his liberty in being excluded from it. Now these arguments are very cogent and valuable when the question has to be discussed on the ground of natural right and the principles of reason; for as long as we are on that ground the Church can only be regarded as a voluntary society; and the State, in making provision for religious teaching, only as doing what she will with her own.
But we cannot but feel that wben the question is removed to a higher sphere, and discussed on Scriptural and Christian principles, this mode of answering will not really remove the objection; and yet it is on this ground that it is apt to be most powerfully felt. Here we must view the Church, not as a mere voluntary society, but as an institution of Christ. Now, in this point of view, the Church has not a right to make what laws and presoribe what conditions of membership or of office she pleases. In making laws, she is strictly bound to adhere to the revealed will of Christ, as contained in Scripture ; her commission from her risen Head runs expressly thus Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. xxviii. 20); and in admitting to or excluding from communion or office, she has no right to exercise an arbitrary discretion, but is bound to admit all those, and those only, whom she has reason to believe Christ, her Head, has already admitted to his fellowship, or called to labour in his vineyarit. Thus, although no man has a natural or civil right to be a member or office-bearer of the Church, yet a real, consistent, professing believer has a spiritual right to be admitted to her fellowship, and one who has the qualifications and call to office has a spiritual right to be admitted to the exercise of it. Such a one might be grievously injured in his spiritual liberty by an arbitrary or unwarrantable exercise of the Church's power. “I would care little,” he might say, “ to be merely excluded from a private society; but I cannot but feel it a grievous hardship, when, under the pretence of your liberty or right, you exclude me from the visible Church of Christ, or from the privilege of serving God in the Gospel of his Son.” And he may add,
“Since God has given me the right to inquire and think for myself, it is an act of usurpation to exclude me from the Church merely because I do not agree with what
think right.” In order to meet the objection on this ground, we must consider more particularly what this right of private judgment, on which it is founded, really is, and what it implies in this connection. Now, it does not imply, when viewed on this spiritual platform, that a man is at liberty to believe either truth or error as he pleases ; that he is not responsible for his belief; or that it is of no consequence what he holds. On the lower ground of natural right and civil society, there is a sense in which this is true : man is not responsible to his fellow-man for his belief; and whether he be right or wrong, there is no human power that has a right to inflict punishment or disabilities upon him on account of it. And on this ground the objection is met by showing, as we have already indicated, that on principles of natural right, exclusion from the Church or its offices is neither a punishment nor a disability. But when we come to the higher ground of spiritual principles, we must remember that man is responsible to God for his beliefs as well as for
his actions ; and that it is at his peril that he believes anything that is not true, and that he does not judge to be so. This is the very backbone of religious liberty. It is the duty of every man to find out the truth, and to submit to the truth when he has found it; and in doing this he must judge for himself, and form his belief on his own exclusive responsibility ; and, as none can take this responsibility for him, so he is not at liberty to give implicit trust or obedience to any human authority.
But still it is his duty to ascertain and believe the truth; and a belief of some truth is necessary in order to being admitted into the Church of Christ. If this be so,
the Church no more infringes on the liberty of conscience in requiring a certain profession of faith in her members, than she does in requiring a certain seemliness and consistency of walk. True, she may err in making the terms of communion too narrow, as she may also err in making them too wide; but these are questions of detail, and do not affect the general principle, which is the thing now in question. It will be universally admitted that a profession of Christianity implies a belief of some truth, and that it is no violation of the right of private judgment for a Christian Church to require of its members a profession of Christianity. And, from these premises, it necessarily follows that it is no violation of the right of private judgment for the Church to require of her members a profession of belief in some truth, and this is all that we are concerned to maintain in this matter. What the precise nature or extent of the truths to be professed ought to be is another question altogether. We are not now inquiring what sort of standards the Church should use, but simply showing that Church standards, as such, are not inconsistent with the right of private judgment. Our Church has wisely abstained from attempting to prescribe any formula of belief to be used in all cases as a term of communion, but has left this to be decided in practice by the discretion of the individual ministers and converts of the Church.
In regard, again, to the qualifications for office in the Church, the question becomes more complicated, since, besides the single principle of liberty of conscience, various other considerations come into play. It is right and reasonable to expect of those who aspire to the office of teachers in the Church a variety of qualifications, such as study, scholarship, ability to teach, beyond what are required in siinple members; and who shall say that, among the necessary qualifications for such an office, a competent acquaintance with, and firm belief of, the leading principles of the religion they are to ach does not hold an important place ? Ah! but it may be said, it is after all the Bible, and not the Confession, that ministers are to preach ; and, as the Bible may be understood in inany different ways, why should they be limited to that one way that is expressed in the Confession ? To this we answer, The Confession does not really limit our faith any more than the Bible, nay, far less; for, though the Bible may be understood in many ways, no one surely will contend that it was meant to be thus variously understood, or that all the varying interpretations are equally correct. The true sense of Scripture is, after all, but one; and though in many places it may be doubtful which of several views gives the true sense, yet it is certain that, of all the various senses, one only is true and all the rest false. So that, in point of fact, Scripture does decide a great many points that are not in the Confessions at all, and, instead of being narrower, they are in reality a great deal wider than the one true sense of Scripture. If, indeed, any human standard contained any statement not founded on Scripture, or contrary to it, to require a belief of it would, indeed, be to make narrower terms than Scripture has done; and, on the principles of Protestantism, any such statement should be at once withdrawn. It may, of course, be a question whether or not any particular Confession does not include in it more articles, or a more detailed exposition of Christian truth, than is necessary, and for the edification of the Church; but this is a matter of detail apart from the question of the propriety of such standards in general, and I think the considerations I have suggested are enough to show that the general practice of the Church in this matter is no more in consistence with the right of private judgment than with the supremacy of Scripture. It
may be said, however, that though many plausible reasons may be alleged for the use of Church standards, they are, at least, open to suspicion, inasmuch as no direct precept or sanction for their use can be pleaded from Scripture; and we do not find them coming into general use in the Church as tests of orthodoxy till a period subsequent to the first and best age. Now, it must be admitted that there is so far truth in this statement, that there is no express command or even sanction in Scripture, in so many words, for the use of such document. The passage (2 Tim. i. 13) so often quoted in this connection as a warrant for their use, will not grammatically bear the meaning of the English translation, and it seems to have no reference whatever to creeds or forms of a profession of faith. But we have on this, as on many other matters connected with the regulation of the Church's affairs, a general principle laid down; while it is left to the practical wisdom and discretion of the Church itself, guided always by the spirit and pattern of the Word, to carry out the principle into practical operation, in such ways as may be most suitable to her varying circumstances in different times and places. The general principle thus laid down is that we are to judge of the respect and attention due to those who would be teachers of religion by a profession or confession of the truth made by them. We are to try the spirits whether they be of God; and this is the test we are to try them by, whether they confess the truth of God. Now, if this be so, it becomes a very subordinate question, and one merely of expediency, not of principle, in what particular way such a profession is to be made. Some branches of the Church consider that this may be best done by each individual minister making a profession of his faith in his own words; others, and these are the most numerous, have professed to adopt one common public form for all to give their assent to; but both of these methods are ways in which the fundamental principle—which alone is contained in Scripture-may be carried out; and either plan, faithfully administered, must suffice to secure the purity of the Church's teaching. Each has its own advantages and its own drawbacks, and if we hold that, on the whole, the latter plan has more advantages and fewer drawbacks than the other, still we do not set up this as an absolute rule necessary to the being or even to the well-being of the Church. Our Lord and his Apostles have laid down the principle, that the Church ought to see to her teachers confessing and teaching the true doctrine; but has left it to her own wisdom and discretion, guided always by the general principles of the Word, to adopt the special means best fitted for this purpose, and of these means the one most generally adopted has been the use of subordinate standards or Confessions of Faith. It has not been our object, however, to enter at large on the Scriptural authority for Church standards, but simply to consider their consistency with the two great Protestant principles of the supremacy of Scripture and the right of private judgment, in the hope of being able to do something to obviate the objections so often brought against them on the ground of these points.
We may close this essay by quoting the words of an eminent divine of the seventeenth century, which give a very fair and well-balanced view of the subject. “ Let no one, of however great name, by his authority bind the free consciences of the faithful: but as Clemens Romanus once said, “Let the truth be taken from the Scriptures themselves ;' by these alone it should stand or fall in religious affairs; by these are all controversies to be settled. And it was by the sacred and undefiled Gospels of our Lord Jesus Christ that the ancient councils were influenced. Nevertheless, let not any one inconsiderately, on this pretence, refuse his assent to such forms of expression as are taken from the Word of God, and are agreeable to the Scriptures, are the bonds of Church union, the marks of orthodoxy, the bars of heresy, and the limits of wanton wits, as though they were the remains of the Babylonish tower, which obliged men to think and speak alike in religion." *
“Then came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is he that is born King of the Jews?'
Who were these wise men ? Tradition answers with wonderful minuteness, but, as in many other cases, with more minuteness than convincing effect: giving their number, their rank, their names, and the exact localities from which they came. According to it they were three in number; they were kings in rank; they were called Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar ; they came from three separate countries, represented by the three different kinds of offering they brought with them; they were baptized by St. Thomas ; they were buried in Constantinople by St. Helena; and their bones were afterwards carried to Cologne, on the Rhine, where they may be seen at this present hour. In the great cathedral of Cologne there are three skulls, crowned with three golden crowns: and these are the relics of the three kings who did homage to the babe at Bethlehem.
But as these particulars have no hasis of authority, except shadowy tradition, we must just brush them all away and turn to the only trustworthy account—that of the Apostle Matthew. And there we learn nothing definite respecting either their number, or their reputed royalty, or their names, or their respective countries ; nor do we obtain any light as to their past or future history. We only gather that certain wise men, or magi, came looking for Jesus ; that they were high in the world's esteem, and well versed in the world's learning, as their title and office import; that they were rich, as their valuable presents seem to indicate; that they had an ardent desire to know the truth concerning Jesus, as their whole conduct proves ; that they came from the East; and that, having accomplished their object, they returned home by another route than that by which they came.
And yet, though it be thus general, the picture is very full and complete; and so accurate is it in every particular, so true to itself and to all we know of Eastern nations and manners at that time, that it bears on the face of it the evidence of its own genuineness. Matthew did not feel called to describe all that was known of these now famous Orientals. Jesus was the subject of his story, and the central figure in his canvas ; and these and other men were only brought into sight in virtue, and up to the measure of the relation
* Witaius “ On the Covenants,” Preface.