A Fixed or a Fluid Church
Excerpts from John Macleod’s Scottish Theology in Relation to Church History Since the Reformation (1943), lectures delivered at Westminster Theological Seminary in 1939. Macleod was Principal of the Free Church of Scotland College, Edinburgh.
In connection with the controversies that attended the changes of which we have spoken, the whole question of the fixity as over against the fluidity of a Church’s doctrinal constitution came up for discussion. Neither the multiplication table nor the proportion that a majority bears to a minority can solve the problem in morals – Is it permissible for men who have come to hold office in a Church by giving pledges, which in turn they have exacted from other entrants to the ministry, to make use of the vantage ground that they have so secured for the end of overturning the full and unabated profession of the truth that they have pledged themselves to maintain? In this connection there came up for decision the substantial issue of the whole subscription controversy, a latitudinarian solution of which wrote the death warrant of the post-Puritan Presbyterian Church in England.
There is a well-worn tag to the effect that the Lord has yet much light to break forth from His Word. As to this, no devout believer has any more doubt than had John Robinson. At the same time as believers have no doubt in regard to this matter, it holds of them in the measure in which they are well instructed and established in the knowledge of the Word that they are equally confident that the further light that is to break out will not cancel nor challenge nor detract from the brightness with which the light of the Word already shines. What is new will only intensify what is old. It will not darken it nor throw it in the shade. It will not open up the light or message of another Gospel than that which our Lord and His Apostles have left us. It will be a thing of detail and not of wide-sweeping principle. We need not, then, look for results of a revolutionary kind as the outcome of the shining of New Light if it is light indeed. Old Light of this kind is better than pretended New.
We need not fear for the Faith as it has been confessed from the first, that it shall be shaken or overthrown. It is too well grounded in the sure warrant of the Divine Word to run any such risk. And as for the discovery of further truth such as will modify what is embodied in the Reformed Confessions, the system taught in the Reformed Faith is so truly an echo of the Apostolic word that those who hold it need not be put about in their mind nor give place to craven fears that it shall ever be set aside. It may meet again and again with what it has often met already, cavilings and perverse disputings of men that were not willing to take and keep their place at the footstool of Him who by His Apostles has left in their writings the final norm of the Faith. The truth already known may be known more fully and perfectly. It may be seen better in its own setting and in the connection and relations of its various parts. Its power and its beauty and its sweetness and its glory may be more richly known. Yet those who have learned the Gospel of the Glory of the Blessed God may rest assured of this, that any further truth which as light will break forth from the Word will have no quarrel with the truth and the proportion of what they have already come to know. They may well keep their windows open to the east to welcome the light that a new day brings with it; but no shining of the rising sun will do more than confirm them in the knowledge and faith of what their confessing fathers learned from the Apostles – what, indeed, in Holy Writ is set forth with great plainness of speech. The great outline of the Word is not a thing of yesterday.
The possible emergence of New Light, then, that will set aside the historic faith of believing Christendom may be set up as a bugbear to deter the Church from bravely and simply and steadfastly professing, as truth known and ascertained, what he who runs may read. This has been set down for all time in the Word which crystallizes and perpetuates the ministry of the Apostles. As that ministry was one of witness we need look for no new facts in the record of our Lord’s work, nor for any new words to add to the message with which the New Testament has already come. As their ministry was one of teaching we need look for no other exposition of the facts of the Gospel or of the work of the Lord than they have already given. Divine truth does not contradict itself. The return of the Reformation to the regulative authority of the Lord as He speaks in the Word which He has given was of such a bona fide character that not only is the general substance of the Faith as confessed by our Reformers in keeping with the Rule of Faith, but the system of truth in the mutual connections of its leading parts is the truth that the Divine Word itself has set forth. The offence that as a matter of fact has been given by the Calvinism of our Reformed Faith is an offence that is taken at the truth of the Word in regard to the Sovereign Grace to which we trace up the hope of Eternal Life that is to be found in the Son of God Incarnate.