The Reformed Faith in Modern Scotland

John Macleod

Excerpts from an article in The Princeton Theological Review, volume 24 (1926).

Thomas M’Crie in 1820 ventured on a forecast of the development of things religious in his country which was now finding striking confirmation: “A vague and indefinite evangelism, mixed with seriousness into which it is the prevailing disposition of the present age to resolve all Christianity, will, in the natural progress of human sentiment, degenerate into an unsubstantial and incoherent pietism, which after effervescing in enthusiasm will finally settle into indifference; in which case, the spirit of infidelity and irreligion, which is at present working and spreading to a more alarming extent than many seem to imagine, will achieve an easy conquest over a feeble and exhausted and nerveless adversary.”

The old sturdy Evangelical life that was rooted in that knowledge of the Word of God which is sealed by the illumination of the Holy Ghost was replaced by fitful and sensational revivalism which produced excitement and aimed at giving speedy peace and securing immediate results in the profession of conversion. Its method of short cuts and the warfare that it waged on the serious and weighty introspective type of godliness that has always characterized the Puritan tradition did not encourage the large and generous attention that the earlier generations of Evangelicals had paid to the exhibition in systematic form and in ordered proportion of Christian truth. Those who were the upholders and the product of this new order could scarcely be reckoned upon in the day of battle to prove defenders of the Reformed tradition. There was thus a weakening of the hold which Confessional teaching had on the older generations. It had become unfashionable.

Confluent streams of unfriendly tendency were beating on the walls of the old citadel. And it felt their impact. The liberty of indefinite change which would reduce the stability of the Church’s Confession to the steadfastness of the weathercock was held by Dr. Rainy and his followers to belong to the essence of Spiritual Independence. The issues of the old Subscription Controversy were raised afresh. Martineau may tell how this freedom of indefinite change had brought himself and his fellow Socinians to be the representatives of orthodox Puritans whose legitimate succession was not guarded by Subscription. He believed in freedom of speculation and profession of personal convictions, but he would not pledge others or bind posterity. He says in his second letter to Rev. S. F. Macdonald (1859): “My protest is against a Church fixing its creed, i.e. against a prior generation of life-tenants prejudging the convictions of a posterior and using their own rights to the restriction of their posterity’s. I know well that to believe a thing true is to believe it immutable; that earnest conviction naturally excludes all suspicion of possible change, and carries in it a confidence of spreading to other minds, and attaining universal recognition. Within the limits of his proper rights I would have every man surrender himself freely to these impressions, utter them, and act upon them. But limits there certainly are to his proper rights in this respect; arising partly from the presence around him of his fellows with precisely similar feeling attached to different beliefs; partly from the certainty of successors whose faculties and opportunities are not his to mortgage.”

That is to say, men may think for themselves that they have found the truth, but the Church must be ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of it. In Martineau’s words we have the marrow of what came in Scotland to be known as New Light. Those who have learned the truth of the Evangel have no fear that any new light that will break forth from the Word will quench or dim the light whose shining has gladdened their hearts. The truth they have learned they can individually and collectively acknowledge and their rightful successors and representatives are those that share their faith. They do not lay on those that do not hold it the obligation to avow as their Faith what is not their Faith. Those only who hold it for themselves are their legitimate heirs in the Church of God.

The principle in regard to a Church’s Confession which would always keep the window open to the East for new light was one held in common by two such different men as James Martineau and Robert Rainy. Those who espoused this view of things as regulative of the Church’s duty felt the strict terms of Subscription to the Confession which the Free Church of Scotland exacted to be a galling yoke. They took steps accordingly to relieve themselves from such a yoke. The way that they adopted to do this was the passing of a Declaratory Act which set forth the sense in which Subscription to the Confession was required. The character of this Ecclesiastical legislation was more than doubtful. Contemporaneously with these movements in the Free Church there were movements of a similar kind in the other large Presbyterian Churches. Indeed the United Presbyterian Synod were beforehand with the action that they took. The pseudo-liberalizing tendency among them resulted in the adoption of a Declaratory Act in regard to Confessional Subscription in 1879. The real character of the statements of this Declaratory Act we are not at present concerned to set forth. They may have been a warrantable declaration of the truth taught in the Confession or an addition to its statements or even conceivably a substitute for them, for the last doctrinal deliverance is presumably of regulative authority. Dr. George Smeaton, of whom his able but eccentric colleague James Macgregor said that he had the best-constituted theological intellect in Christendom, held a very definite view of their character. “There are,” said he, “good Calvinists in the United Presbyterian Synod but I should not find it difficult to prove that in its Declaratory Statement the Synod has taken up Arminian ground.”

In the Established Church [i.e. the Church of Scotland], the Broad-Churchism of Robert Lee and Norman Macleod became more outspoken. The volume of Scotch Sermons published in 1880 was virtually a manifesto of this School. The right place for men of such opinions as were here ventilated was outside of any Reformed Church. Their avowal of the Church’s Confession as the Confession of their Faith was belied in their teaching and policy. Honest men would have given up a position that they could not honestly hold and would never have used it to further a policy which aimed at the subversion of the Constitution that they had pledged themselves to defend.

The agitation of the Broad Churchmen bore fruit. From 1711 a formula of Subscription to the Confession had been in steady use which bound the subscriber in unmistakable terms to that document as the Confession of his own Faith. He pledged himself to assert, maintain and defend its whole doctrine, for he owned the whole doctrine of the Confession to be the truths of God to which he promised through grace firmly to adhere. There could be no mistake as to the pledge thus given. It was obviously meant to conserve for all time the profession of the truth that the early Reformed Church was assured she had learned from the Word of God. In regard to this Formula the question was raised as to the competence of the Church’s action in first adopting it and then for over a hundred and seventy years employing it as the bond which bound her ministers to the Confession. The ground was taken that the Formula of 1711 went farther and was stricter than the requirements of the Civil Statute of 1693. Accordingly in 1889 a Formula was adopted which echoed the terms of that Act of Parliament and was almost identical with the Formula in use from 1694 to 1711. The slight differences of these two similar Formulas were not without significance. But it could scarcely be claimed by those who had clamored for relaxation of terms of Subscription that they had secured anything material by this virtual return to the Formula of 1694.

The terms of the Formula of 1889 in respect to adherence to the Confession as the Confession of the Subscriber’s personal faith were identical with those of the 1694 Formula, “I declare the Confession of Faith . . . to be the Confession of my faith and I own the doctrine therein contained to be the true doctrine which I will constantly adhere to.” To turn the corner of this engagement the course of resorting to declaratory legislation which the larger unestablished Churches had taken was considered. Its competence was found to be restricted to narrow limits. On matters in regard to which the Confession is ambiguous or silent it might be employed. But as long as the Act of 1690 remained in force the Church had no power by Declaratory Acts or otherwise to modify, abridge or extend any Article of the Confession. Its possible use in regard to topics outside the scope of the Confession could not relieve Subscribers from any share of the full obligation to own the doctrine of the Confession to be the true doctrine. It was felt that it was only by upsetting the [civil] legislation of the Revolution Settlement 1690-1693 that any change could be secured. That legislation had been guaranteed to be permanent by the Act of Security in 1706 and by the Treaty of Union with England in 1707. This being so it did not look likely that relaxed Subscription would be brought about. Or were the Treaties mere scraps of paper?

Meanwhile, the Union negotiations between the Free Church of Scotland and the United Presbyterian Church which had broken down in 1873 were resumed. For this the ecclesiastical leaders had been paving the way. The Declaratory Statement of the United Presbyterian Synod of 1879 was followed by the Free Church Declaratory Act of 1892. By these instruments the endeavor had been made to relax subscription to the Standards. In each case we believe that such legislation was incompetent. To make it so a minority had but to interpose a veto. If it was declaratory it must, to be competent, declare the true meaning of the Confession and not something else in its stead. If it was extra-Confessional it could not modify the full pledge given at ordination to hold to the full Confession, for no competent addition to the Confession could modify its considered statements while the terms of Subscription were left unchanged. Legislation of such a character as could secure modification was ultra vires [i.e., outside their authority] for the Courts of the Church, at least of the Free Church, and as such was null and void. The pledge given by ordinands is fundamental to their whole ecclesiastical life and activity. It is in virtue of it that they hold the office to which they were ordained when they gave this pledge.

The United Presbyterian Synod when it passed its Subscription legislation in 1879 altered the Question put to ordinands to make room for the statements of their Declaratory Act. This change was not called in question in any serious way. In the Free Church however there was no such change in the terms of contract and until their Union with the United Presbyterian Church in October, 1900, even the majority continued to exact the pledge of full adherence to the whole doctrine of the Confession of Faith. It was this fact that rendered possible the continuance with them of the minority who were opposed to any tampering with the Constitution of their Church. For over thirty years they had fought their fight as the Constitutional party whose position as they defended their Church’s Constitution was in turn by that Constitution defended. Throughout these long years Principal Rainy was the protagonist on behalf of a reserve power of making indefinite change. Over against his voting phalanx were the resolute defenders of the old order. For a series of years at the early stage of this conflict an ecclesiastical duel in the field of journalism was fought. On the one side was The Presbyterian whose presiding genius was Robert Rainy. On the other was The Watchword edited by James Begg with Hugh Martin as his right-hand man. The question at issue in regard to Subscription was the same throughout. This question Hugh Martin handled in his trenchant style in an article, “Are we to have no constitution?”

“I am ordained into this Church, resigning, we shall say, all other life prospects which I might be warranted to cherish and devoting to her service all my energies and interests, embarking on her prospects also all the temporal interests on my family. I am then ordained in terms of an Ordination Vow. This vow is not an instrument special in my case, not peculiar to me. It is the vow taken also by all my brothers who in this Church are exactly my peers. It has been already taken by all the brothers who in this transaction of exacting and accepting my vow represent to me and act the part towards me of the Church. Not to mention that they are thus bound by the self-same vow already, taking into account merely that they exact and I render this vow in my ordination, is it conceivable that speaking of this one ordination merely I alone became bound by it? Is this merely a pact on my side without being a compact between me and the Church? . . . Do I then come under obligation to the Church without the Church coming under obligation to me? Who would make an assertion so outrageous? The idea of a vow between creatures of God binding only one party in the transaction is a sheer paralogism. This vow entails very weighty obligations on my side and on the side of the Church the weight of obligation is as great. The obligation is manifestly reciprocal. That inheres in the idea of it. Laying out of view the contingency of my convictions as to the subject-matter of my vow coming to be changed and my leaving the Church accordingly, I am bound by it, aye, and until the Church shall release me. Is it conceivable that all this time the Church should have been silently reserving a right to release herself what time she may be able to outvote me? Is it possible that on what are actually called ‘general impressions’ and considerations of ‘good sense’ it is proposed to regulate anew our Church Communion and I am to be – by a dispensing power, we presume – set free from my ordination vow and the Church from her reciprocal and another is to be substituted in its stead? Has a majority power to do this? Yes, if I have power to change my vow and still continue in the Church. And yes, if the Church was not bound to me by prescribing and accepting my vow. . . . A majority may prove treacherous to a vow, just as an individual may: nor is it in the power of the multiplication table to settle a question of morals. Our ordination vow taking us bound to our Confession settles that we have a Constitution, clearly enough defines it, renders us answerable to it and pledges the Church reciprocally as amenable to it also.”

The men who adhered to the full Confession unabated and unmodified could go no farther with their brethren when they entered into a new alliance whose constitutive terms were obviously such as called for an abatement of the full and unambiguous profession of the Reformed Faith as that found exhibition and statement in the Confession. Their stand for the old Constitution brought them into the law courts to defend their civil rights and the decision of the highest Judicial Tribunal in the British Empire recognized them as the rightful representatives of the Free Church of Scotland of 1843. The result was an almost world-wide outcry against the decision; and to adjust things Parliament intervened.

Now was the time for the Ecclesiastics of the Established Church to seek release from what they felt to be unwelcome bonds. They secured [from Parliament] the Fifth Clause of the Churches’ (Scotland) Act of 1905. The Free Church which had made good its contentions and which was to be subjected to a process of legal spoliation [of its property] which resulted in its being fleeced when it was not flayed had always aimed at an up-building again of a United Church of Scotland on the ground of the Ancient Statutes of the Revolution Settlement and the Treaty of Union. They had resisted the majority of their former brethren who had sought to compass the downfall of the Establishment. They had fought in its defence. Yet those whose privileged position as a National Institution they had unselfishly defended ruthlessly threw them overboard when they could have given them help. They did more. They undermined the very foundation on which the Church of Scotland had rested for over two centuries and once for all made it impossible for those who adhered to the integrity of the ancient order to return to fellowship with them. For by their intervention in 1905 they secured the alteration of the statutory [civil] obligation that lay upon them as the Established Church to exact an acknowledgment from their ministers of their acceptance and avowal of the Confession of Faith as the Confession of their own faith. They went to fish in troubled waters and this was what they caught: “The Formula of Subscription to the Confession of Faith . . . shall be such as may be prescribed by Act of General Assembly of the . . . Church with the consent of the majority of the Presbyteries thereof.” The Churches’ (Scotland) Act was passed in 1905. It was not until 1909 that the New Formula was adopted which should replace the old one. Its terms are: “I hereby subscribe the Confession of Faith declaring that I accept it as the Confession of this Church and that I believe the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith contained therein.” This new Formula is more remarkable for what it is not than for what it is. It does not pledge the Subscriber to the Confession as in any personal sense his own. Neither does it pledge him to the system of doctrine set forth in the Confession.

The profession of the truth of His Word that the Lord calls for from His Church is but the utterance of convictions which she cherishes because she has come to know that truth. The truth in regard to the mystery of sin in the race and in the individual, the truth in regard to the redemption which the Gospel exhibits in the mystery of God and Godliness and in the mystery of redemption and regeneration, the truth in regard to a salvation that is all of Grace as it is all from God, this is the truth that must be known by the world that the world may be saved. The truth that enshrines the glory of God as it gives all glory to Him is the instrument which is destined to regenerate mankind. And this truth must not be muffled up or withheld or suppressed. It ill becomes the professing Church of God to halt or to hesitate in proclaiming truth like this. And it is ominous that the tendency to make as hazy as may be the avowal of such truth should furnish the atmosphere in which the two great Presbyterian Churches of Scotland [i.e. the Church of Scotland and the United Free Church] speak of uniting. When over the grave of buried truth they agree to sink their differences the value of the result will come out in negatives and not in positives. They have gone far; there is reason to fear that they will go farther.