Samuel Miller (1769-1850)
The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions
But while we attend to the principal arguments in favour of written creeds, justice to the subject requires that we examine some of the principal objections which have been made to creeds by their adversaries.
Obj. 1. Creeds add to the Bible.
1. And the first which I shall mention is that forming a creed, and requiring subscription to it as a religious test, is superseding the Bible, and making a human composition instead of it a standard of faith. “The Bible,” say those who urge this objection, “is the only infallible rule of faith and practice. It is so complete, that it needs no human addition, and so easily understood, that it requires no human explanation. Why, then, should we desire any other ecclesiastical standard? Why subscribe ourselves, or call upon others to subscribe, any other creed than this plain, inspired, and perfect one? Every time we do this we offer a public indignity to the sacred volume, as we virtually declare, either that it is not infallible, or not sufficient.”
This objection is the most specious one in the whole catalogue. And although it is believed that a sufficient answer has been furnished by some principles already laid down; yet the confidence with which it is every day repeated renders a formal attention to it expedient; more especially as it bears, at first view, so much the appearance of peculiar veneration for the scriptures, that many are captivated by its plausible aspect, and consider it as decisive.
The whole argument which this objection presents is founded on a false assumption. No Protestant ever professed to regard his creed, considered as a human composition, as of equal authority with the scriptures, and far less of paramount authority. Every principle of this kind is, with one voice, disclaimed, by all the creeds, and defenses of creeds, that I have ever read. And whether, notwithstanding this, the constant repetition of the charge ought to be considered as fair argument, or gross calumny, the impartial will judge. A church creed professes to be, as was before observed, merely an epitome, or summary exhibition of what the scriptures teach. It professes to be deduced from the scriptures, and to refer to the scriptures for the whole of its authority. Of course, when any one subscribes it, he is so far from dishonoring the Bible, that he does public homage to it. He simply declares, by a solemn act, how he understands the Bible in other words, what doctrines he considers it as containing.
In short, the language of an orthodox believer, in subscribing his ecclesiastical creed, is simply of the following import: “While the Socinian professes to believe the Bible, and to understand it as teaching the mere humanity of Christ; while the Arian professes to receive the same Bible, and to find in it the Saviour represented as the most exalted of all creatures, but still a creature; while the Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian make a similar profession of their general belief in the scriptures, and interpret them as teaching a doctrine far more favorable to human nature, and far less honorable to the grace of God, than they appear to me really to teach; I beg the privilege of declaring, for myself, that, while I believe with all my heart that the Bible is the word of God, the only perfect rule of faith and manners, and the only ultimate test in all controversies; it plainly teaches, as I read and believe, the deplorable and total depravity of human nature; the essential divinity of the Saviour; a Trinity of persons in the Godhead; justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ; and regeneration and sanctification by the Holy Spirit, as indispensable to prepare the soul for heaven. These I believe to be the radical truths which God has revealed in his word; and while they are denied by some, and frittered away or perverted by others who profess to believe that blessed word, I am verily persuaded they are the fundamental principles of the plan of salvation.”
Now, I ask, is there in all this language, any thing dishonorable to the Bible? Any thing that tends to supersede its authority; or to introduce a rule, or a tribunal of paramount authority? Is there not, on the contrary, in the whole language and spirit of such a declaration, an acknowledgment of God’s word as of ultimate and supreme authority; and an expression of belief in certain doctrines, simply and only because they are believed to be revealed in that word? Truly, if this is dishonoring the scriptures, or setting up a standard above them, there is an end of all meaning either of words or actions.
Obj. Is the Bible not plain enough to be understood?
But still it is asked, “Where is the need of any definitive declaration of what we understand the scriptures to teach? Are they not intelligible enough in themselves? Can we make them plainer than their Author has done? Why hold a candle to the sun? Why make an attempt to frame a more explicit test than he who gave the Bible has thought proper to frame an attempt, as vain as it is presumptuous?”
To this plea it is sufficient to answer that, although the scriptures are undoubtedly simple and plain so plain that ” he who runs may read” (cf. Hab. 2:2) yet it is equally certain that thousands do, in fact, mistake and misinterpret them. This cannot possibly be denied, because thousands interpret them (and that on points confessedly fundamental) not only in different, but in directly opposite ways. Of course all cannot be equally right. Can it be wrong, then, for a pious and orthodox man or for a pious church to exhibit, and endeavor to recommend to others, their mode of interpreting the sacred volume? As the world is acknowledged, on all hands, to be, in fact, full of mistake and error as to the true meaning of the holy scriptures, can it be thought a superfluous task for those who have more light and more correct opinions, to hold them up to view, as a testimony to the truth, and as a guide to such as may be in error? Surely it cannot. Yet this is neither more nor less than precisely that formation and maintenance of a scriptural confessions of faith for which I am pleading.
Obj. What right does man have to speak for God?
Still, however, it may be asked, what right has any man, or set of men, to interpose their authority and undertake to deal out the sense of scripture for others? Is it not both impious in itself, and an improper assumption over the minds of our fellow men?
I answer, this reasoning would prove too much, and therefore proves nothing. For, if admitted, it would prove that all preaching of the gospel is presumptuous and criminal; because preaching always consisted in explaining and enforcing scripture, and that, for the most part, in the words of the preacher himself. Indeed, if the objection before us were valid, it would prove that all the pious writings of the most eminent divines, in all ages, who have had for their object to elucidate and apply the word of God, were profane and arrogant attempts to mend his revelation, and make it better fitted than it is to promote its great design. Nay, further; upon the principle of this objection, it not only follows, that no minister of the gospel ought ever do more in the pulpit than simply to read or repeat the very words of scripture; but it is equally evident that he must read or repeat scripture to his hearers only in the languages in which they were given to the church. For, as has been often observed, it cannot be said that the words of any translation of the Bible are the very words of the Holy Spirit. They are only the words which uninspired men have chosen, in which to express, as nearly as they were able, the sense of the original. If, therefore, the objection before us be admitted, no man is at liberty to teach the great truths of revelation in any other way than by literally repeating the Hebrew text of the Old Testament, and the Greek of the New, in the hearing of the people. So extreme is the absurdity to which an erroneous principle will not fail to lead those who are weak enough, or bold enough, to follow it to its legitimate consequences!
Do confessional churches ignore the Bible?
But, after all, what language do facts speak on this subject? Are those individuals or churches, who have been most distinguished for their attachment and adherence to creeds, more regardless of the Bible than other professing Christians? Do they appear to esteem the Bible less? Do they read it less? Do they appeal to it less frequently, as their grand and ultimate authority? Do they quote it more rarely, or with less respect in their preaching? Where they once refer to their creeds or catechisms, for either authority or illustration, in the pulpit, do they not, notoriously, refer to the Bible a thousand times? Do they take less pains than others to impress the contents of the sacred volume on the minds of their children, and to hold it forth as the unceasing object of study to all?
Look at the Reformed churches of Scotland and Holland, of France and Geneva, in their best state, when their confessions of faith were most venerated, and had most power, and then say, whether any churches, since the days of the apostles, ever discovered more reverence for the scriptures, or treated them with more devout regard, as the only perfect standard of faith and practice, than they? Nay, am I not warranted in making a similar appeal with respect to those churches in our land which have been most distinguished for their attachment to creeds? Are not their ministers, in general, quite as remarkable for very rarely quoting their own ecclesiastical formularies, for either proof or illustration, as they are for their constant and abundant quotations from scripture for both purposes? Can the same incessant and devout recurrence to the sacred oracles be ascribed with equal truth to the great body of the opposers of creeds, in ancient, or modern times? I will not press this comparison into further detail; but have no apprehension that even the bitterest enemy of creeds, who has a tolerable acquaintance with facts, and the smallest portion of candor, will venture to say that the result, fairly deduced, is in favor of his cause.
Obj. 2. Creeds bind the conscience.
2. Another objection frequently made to church creeds is that they interfere with the rights of conscience, and naturally lead to oppression. “What right,” say those who urge this objection, “has any church, or body of churches, to impose a creed on me, or dictate to me what I shall believe? To attempt such dictation is tyranny; to submit to it is to surrender the right of private judgment.”
There would be some ground for this objection, if a creed were, in any case, imposed by the civil government, or by an established church; if any were obliged to receive it, under heavy pains and disabilities, whether they approved it or not. But as such a case does not, and, happily, cannot exist in our favored country, the objection is surely as illegitimate in reasoning, as it is false in fact. One is tempted to suspect that those who urge such an objection among us have found it manufactured to their hands, by persons living under civil governments and ecclesiastical establishments of an oppressive character; and viewing it as a weapon which might be wielded with much popular effect, they have taken it into their service, and thenceforward refused to abandon it; though proved a thousand times to have no more application to any creed or church in the United States, than to the inhabitants of another planet.
It will not, surely, be denied by anyone, that a body of Christians have a right, in every free country, to associate and walk together upon such principles as they may choose to agree upon, not inconsistent with public order. They have a right to agree and declare how they understand the scriptures; what articles found in scripture they concur in considering as fundamental; and in what manner they will have their public preaching and polity conducted, for the edification of themselves and their children. They have no right, indeed, to decide or to judge for others, nor can they compel any man to join them. But it is surely their privilege to judge for themselves, to agree upon the plan of their own association, to determine upon what principles they will receive other members into their brotherhood, and to form a set of rules which will exclude from their body those with whom they cannot walk in harmony. The question is not whether they make, in all cases, a wise and scriptural use of this right to follow the dictates of conscience, but whether they possess the right at all? They are, indeed, accountable for the use which they make of it, and solemnly accountable to their Master in heaven; but to man they surely cannot, and ought not, to be compelled to give any account. It is their own concern. Their fellow men have nothing to do with it, as long as they commit no offense against the public peace. To decide otherwise would indeed be an outrage on the right of private judgment. If the principles of civil and religious liberty generally prevalent in our happy country are correct, demonstration itself cannot be more incontrovertible than these positions.
But if a body of professing Christians have a natural right thus to associate, to extract their own creed from the scriptures, and to agree upon the principles by which others may afterwards be admitted into their number; is it not equally manifest that they have the same right to refuse admittance to those with whom, they believe, they cannot be comfortably connected?
Let us suppose a church to be actually associated upon the principle laid down, its creed and other articles adopted, and published for the information of all who may wish to be informed and its members walking together in harmony and love. Suppose, while things are in this situation, a person comes to them, and addresses them thus: “I demand admittance into your body, though I can neither believe the doctrines which you profess to embrace, nor consent to be governed by the rules which you have agreed to adopt.” What answer would they be apt to give him? They would certainly reply: “Your demand is very unreasonable. Our union is a voluntary one, for our mutual spiritual benefit. We have not solicited you to join us; and you cannot possibly have a right to force yourself into our body. The whole world is before you. Go where you please. We cannot agree to receive you, unless you are willing to walk with us upon our own principles.” Such an answer would undoubtedly be deemed a proper one by every reasonable person. Suppose, however, this applicant were still to urge his demand; to claim admission as a right; and, upon being finally refused, to complain that the society had “persecuted” and “injured” him? Would anyone think him possessed of common sense? Nay, would not the society in question, if they could be compelled to receive such an applicant, instead of being oppressors of others, cease to be free themselves?
The same principle would still more strongly apply, in case of a clergyman offering himself to such a church, as a candidate for the station of pastor among them. Suppose, when he appeared to make a tender of his services, they were to present him with a copy of that creed, and of that form of government and of worship which they had unanimously adopted, and to say, “This is what we believe. We pretend not to prescribe to others; ‘but so we have learned Christ’ (cf. Eph. 2:20); so we understand the scriptures; and thus we wish ourselves, our children, and all who look up to us for guidance, to be instructed. Can you subscribe to these formularies? Are you willing to come among us upon these principles, and, as our pastor, thus to break to us, and our little ones, what we deem ‘the bread of life?’” (cf. John 8:35, 48). Could the candidate complain of such a demand? Many speak as if the church, in putting him to this test, undertook to “judge for him.” But nothing can be more remote from the truth. They only undertake to judge for themselves. If the candidate cannot, or will not, accept of the test, he will be, of course, rejected. But, in this case, no judgment is passed on his state toward God; no ecclesiastical censure, not even the smallest, is inflicted upon him. The churches only claim a right to be served in the ministerial office by a man who is of the same religion with themselves. And is this an unreasonable demand? Are not the rights of conscience reciprocal? Or do they demand, that while a church shall be prohibited from “oppressing” an individual, an individual shall be allowed to “oppress” a church? Surely it cannot be necessary to wait for an answer.
Accordingly, the transactions of secular life furnish every day a practical refutation of the objection which I am now considering. Does the head of a family, when a person applies to be received as a resident under his roof, ever doubt that he has a right to inquire whether the applicant is willing to conform to the rules of his family or not; and if he declines this conformity, to refuse him admission? And even after he has been received and tried, for awhile, if he proves an uncomfortable inmate, does not every one consider the master of the family as at liberty to exclude him? Has not every parent, and, of course, every voluntary association of parents, an acknowledged right to determine what qualifications they will require in a preceptor for their children; and, if so, to bring all candidates to the test agreed on, and to reject those who do not correspond with it? And if a candidate who fell totally short of the qualifications required, and who, of course, was rejected, should make a great outcry that he was “wantonly” and “tyrannically” deprived of the place to which he aspired, would not every one think him insane, or worse than insane? The same principle applies to every voluntary association, for moral, literary, or other lawful purposes. If the members have not a right to agree on what principles they will associate, and to refuse membership to those who are known to be entirely hostile to the great object of the association, there is an end of all liberty. Of the self evident truth of all this, no one doubts. But where is the essential difference between any one of these rights, and the right of any community of professing Christians to agree upon what they deem the scriptural principles of their own union; and to refuse admission into their body of those whom they consider as unfriendly to the great purposes of truth and edification, for the promotion of which they associated? To deny them this right, would be to make them slaves indeed!
Obj. The church is not a voluntary association.
It will probably, however, be alleged that a church cannot, properly speaking, be considered as a voluntary association; that it is a community instituted by the authority of Christ; that its laws are given by Him, as its sovereign Head and Lord; and that its rulers are in fact only stewards, bound to conform themselves in all that they do to his will; that, if the church were their own, they would have a right to shut out from it whom they pleased; but as it is Christ’s, they must find some other rule of proceeding than their own volitions.
This is, doubtless, all true. The church of Christ certainly cannot be regarded as a mere voluntary association, in the same sense in which many other societies are so called. It is the property of Christ. His will is the basis and the law of its establishment, and, of course, none can be either admitted or excluded but upon principles which his own word prescribes. This, however, it is conceived, does not alter, “one jot or tittle,” the spirit of the foregoing reasoning.
The union of Christians in a church state must, still, from the nature of things, be a voluntary act; for if it were not so, it would not be a moral act at all. But if the union is voluntary, then those who form it must certainly be supposed to have a right to follow their own convictions as to what their Divine Master has revealed and enjoined respecting the laws of their union. If they are not to judge in this matter, who, I ask, is to judge for them? Has the Head of the church, then, prescribed any qualifications as necessary for private membership, or for admission to the ministerial office, in his church? If so, what are they? Will any degree of departure from the purity of faith or practice be sufficient to exclude a man? If it will, to whom has our Lord committed the task of applying his law, and judging in any particular ease? to the applicants or delinquents themselves; or to the church in which membership is desired? If to the latter, on what principle is she bound to proceed? As her members have voluntarily associated for their mutual instruction and edification in spiritual things, have they not a right to be satisfied that the individual who applies to be received among them, either as a private member or minister, entertains opinions, and bears a character, which will be consistent with the great object which they seek? Can any such individual reasonably refuse to satisfy them as to the accordance of his religious sentiments with theirs, if they think that both the law of Christ, and the nature of the case, render such accordance necessary to Christian fellowship? If he could not reasonably refuse to give satisfaction verbally on this subject, could he, with any more reason, refuse to state his own sentiments in writing, and subscribe his name to that written statements?
Surely to decline this, while he consented to give a verbal exhibition of his creed, would wear the appearance of singular caprice or perverseness. But if no rational objection could be made to his subscribing a declaration, drawn up with his own hand, would it not be exactly the same thing, as to the spirit of the transaction, if with a view, simply to ascertain the fact of his belief, not to dictate laws to his conscience a statement, previously drawn up by the church herself, should be presented for his voluntary signature? What is required of an individual in such case is not that he shall believe what the church believes; but simply that he shall declare, as a matter of fact, whether he does possess that belief which, from his voluntary application to be received into Christian fellowship with that church, he may be fairly presumed to possess.
Again, I ask, is it possible to deny a church this right, without striking at the root of all that is sacred in the convictions of conscience, and of all that is precious in the enjoyment of Christian communion? I fully grant, indeed, that, as her authority rests entirely on the declared will of Christ, she has no right, in the sight of God, to propose to a candidate, any other than a sound orthodox creed. She cannot possibly be considered as having a right, on this principle, to require his assent to anti-scriptural principles. Still, however, as the rights of conscience are unalienable; and as every church must be considered, of course, as verily believing that she is acting according to her Master’s will, we must concede to her the plenary right, in the sight of man, to require from those who would join her, a solemn assent to her formularies.
Obj. What if a member changes his mind?
But, perhaps, it will be asked, when a man has already become a member, or minister of a church, in virtue of a voluntary and honest subscription to her articles, and afterwards alters his mind; if he is excluded from her communion as a private member, or deposed from office as a minister, is not here “oppression?” Is it not inflicting on a man a “heavy penalty” for his “opinions,” “punishing” him for his “sincere, conscientious convictions?”
I answer, if the Lord Jesus Christ has not only authorized, but solemnly commanded his church to cast the heretical, as well as immoral, out of her communion, and wholly to withdraw her countenance from those who preach “another gospel” (Gal. 1:6); then it is manifest that the church, in acting on this authority, does no one any injury. In excluding a private member from the communion of a church, or deposing a minister from office in the regular and scriptural exercise of discipline, she deprives neither of any natural right. It is only withdrawing that which was voluntarily asked, and voluntarily bestowed, and which might have been, without injustice, withheld. It is only practically saying, “You can no longer, consistently with our views, either of obedience to Christ, or of Christian edification, be a minister or a member with us. You may be as happy and as useful as you can in any other connection; but we must take away that authority and those privileges which we once gave you, and of which your further exercise among us would be subversive of those principles which we are solemnly pledged to support.” Is this language unreasonable? Is the measure which it contemplates oppressive? Would it be more just in itself, or more favorable to the rights of conscience, if any individual could retain his place as a teacher and guide in a church, contrary to its wishes; to the subversion of its faith; to the disturbance of its peace; and finally to the endangering of its existence; and all this contrary to his own solemn engagements, and to the distinct understanding of its members, when he joined them? Surely every friend of religious liberty would indignantly answer, “No!” Such a church would be the oppressed party, and such a member, the tyrant.
The conclusion, then, is that when a church makes use of a creed in the manner that has been described as a bond of union, as a barrier against what it deems heresy, and in conformity with what it conscientiously believes to be the will of Christ it is so far from encroaching on the “rights” of others; so far from being chargeable with “oppression;” that it is really, in the most enlightened manner, and on the largest scale, maintaining the rights of conscience; and that for such a church, instead of doing this, to give up its own testimony to the truth and order of God’s house; to surrender its own comfort, peace, and edification, for the sake of complying with the unreasonable demands of a corrupt individual, would be to subject itself to the worst of slavery. What is the subjugation of the many, with all their interests, rights, and happiness to the dictation of one, or a few, but the essence of tyranny?
Obj. 3. Creeds stifle free inquiry.
3. A third objection often urged against subscription to creeds and confessions is that it is unfriendly to free inquiry. “When a man,” say the enemies of creeds, “has once subscribed a public formulary, and taken his ecclesiastical stand with a church which requires it, he must continue so to believe to the end of life or resign his place; new light in abundance may offer itself to his view; but he must close his eyes against it. Now, can it be right,” say they, “for anyone voluntarily to place himself in circumstances of so much temptation; willingly to place himself within the reach of strong inducements to tamper with conscience, and to resist conviction?”
In answer to this objection, my first remark is that when a man takes on himself the solemn and highly responsible office of a public instructor of others, we must presume that he has examined the most important of the various creeds (called Christian) with all the deliberation, sincerity, and prayer, of which he is capable, and that he has made up his mind with respect to the leading doctrines of scripture. To suppose anyone capable of entering in the duties of the ministerial office while he is wavering and unsettled, and liable to be “carried about by every wind of doctrine” (cf. Eph. 4:14), is to suppose him both weak and criminal to a very great degree. I know, indeed, that some ardent opposers of creeds consider a state of entire indecision, with regard even to leading theological doctrines, as the most laudable and desirable state of mind. They wish every man not only to feel himself a learner to the end of life, which is undoubtedly right, but also, if possible, to keep himself in that equilibrium of mind with respect to the most important doctrinal opinions, which shall amount to perfect indifference whether he retains or relinquishes his present sentiments. This they eulogize, as “openness to conviction,” “freedom from prejudice,” etc.
Without stopping to combat this sentiment at large, I hesitate not to pronounce it unreasonable in itself, contrary to scripture, and an enemy to all Christian stability and comfort. We know what is said in the word of God, of those who are “ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). I repeat it; we must suppose him who undertakes to be a teacher of others to be himself, as the apostle expresses it, “grounded and settled in the faith” (cf. Col. 1:23). We ought to be considered, then, as having all the security that the nature of the case admits, that he who comes forward as one of the lights and leaders of a religious community is firm in the principles which he has professed, and will not be very apt, essentially, to alter his creed.
But further, the same objection might be urged, with quite as much force, against a man’s making any public declaration of his sentiments, either by preaching, or by writing, and printing; lest he should afterwards obtain more light, and yet be tempted to adhere, contrary to his conscience, to what he had before so publicly espoused. But does any honest minister of the gospel think it his duty to forbear to preach, or otherwise to express his opinions, because it is possible he may afterwards change them? We know that if the preacher of a Unitarian congregation should alter his views, and become orthodox, he must quit his place, give up his salary, and seek employment among his new connections. The same thing would happen if a change the converse of this were to occur, and an orthodox preacher become a Unitarian. What then? Because an honest man, when he changes his mind on the subject of religion, will always hold himself in readiness to change his situation, and to make every necessary sacrifice, shall he, therefore, never venture to take any public station, lest he should not always think as he does at present?
This objection proves too much.
Nay, this objection, if it proves anything, will be found to prove by far too much, even for our opponents themselves. The adversaries of creeds acknowledge, with one consent, that every one ought to be ready to profess his belief in the Bible. But is not even this profession just as liable to the charge of being “unfriendly to free inquiry” as any other? Suppose anyone, after solemnly declaring his belief in the Bible, should cease to believe it? Would he be bound to consider his old subscription as still binding, and as precluding further examination? Or would it be reasonable in any man to decline any profession of belief in the Bible, lest he should, one day, alter his mind, and feel himself embarrassed by his profession?
There can be no doubt that every public act by which a man pledges himself, even as a private member, to any particular denomination of Christians, interposes some obstacle in the way of his afterwards deserting that denomination, and uniting himself with another. And, perhaps, it may be said, the more delicate and honorable his mind, the more reluctant and slow he will be to abandon his old connections, and choose new ones. So that such an one will really labor under a temptation to resist light, and remain where he is. But because this is so, shall a man therefore, never join any church; never take one step that will, directly or indirectly, pledge his religious creed or character, lest he should afterwards alter his mind, and be constrained to transfer his relation to a different body, and thus be liable to find himself embarrassed by his former steps?
Upon this principle, we must go further, and adopt the doctrine, equally absurd and heathenish, that no parent ought ever to instruct his child in what he deems the most precious truths of the gospel, lest he should fill his mind with prejudices, and present an obstacle to free and unshackled inquiry afterwards. For there can be no doubt that early parental instruction does present more or less obstacle, in the way of a subsequent change of opinion, on those subjects which that instruction embraced. Yet our Father in heaven has expressly commanded us to instruct our children and to endeavor to pre-occupy their minds with everything that is excellent both in principle and practice. In short, if the objection before us is valid, then no one ought ever to go forward in the discharge of any duty; for he may one day cease to think it a duty; in other words, he ought habitually, and upon principle, to disobey some of the plainest commands of God, lest he should afterwards entertain different views of those commands, from those which he at present entertains. Nay, if this be so, then every book a man reads, and every careful, deep inquiry he makes concerning the subject of it, must be considered as tending to influence the mind, and to interfere with perfect impartiality in any subsequent inquiry on the same subject; and, therefore, ought to be forborne!
Surely no man in his senses judges or acts thus. Especially, no Christian allows himself thus to reason or act. In the path of what appears to be present duty, he feels bound to go forward, leaving future things with God. If subscription to a correct creed is really agreeable to the will of God; if it is necessary, both to the purity and harmony of the church; and, therefore, in itself a duty; then no man ought any more to hesitate about discharging this duty, than about discharging any of those duties which have been mentioned, or any others which may be supposed. There is no station in life in which its occupant does not find some peculiar temptation. But if he is a man of a right spirit, he will meet it with Christian integrity, and overcome it with Christian courage. If he is a truly honest man, he will be faithful to his God, and faithful to his own conscience, at all hazards; and if he is not honest, he will not be very likely to benefit the church by his discoveries and speculations.
Accordingly, the voice of history confirms this reasoning. On the one hand, how many thousand instances have the last two centuries afforded of men who were willing to incur not only obloquy and reproach, but also beggary, imprisonment, and even death itself, in their most frightful forms, rather than abandon the truth, and subscribe to formularies which they could not conscientiously adopt! On the other hand, how many instances have occurred, within the last fifty years, of unprincipled men, after solemnly subscribing orthodox creeds, disregarding their vows, and opposing the spirit of those creeds, and still retaining their ecclesiastical stations, without reserve! It is plain, then, that this whole objection, though specious, has not the least solidity. Truly upright and pious men will always follow their convictions; while, with regard to those of an opposite character, their light, whether they remain or depart, will be found to be of no value, either to themselves, or the church of God.
Obj. 4. Creeds don’t truly unite Christians.
4. A fourth objection frequently brought against creeds is that they have altogether failed of answering the purpose professed to be intended by them. “Churches,” it is said, “which have creeds the most carefully drawn, and of the most rigid character, are as far from being united in doctrinal opinions, as some which either have never had any creeds at all, or have long since professedly omitted to enforce subscription to them. To mention only two examples: the Church of England, for nearly three centuries, has had a set of articles decisively Calvinistic, to which all her candidates for the ministry are required to subscribe; but we know that more than a hundred and fifty years have passed away, since Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian tenets began to pollute that important branch of the reformed church; and that within the last seventy-five or eighty years, almost every form of heresy has lurked under subscription to her orthodox Articles. And even the Church of Scotland, which has had, for nearly two centuries, the most rigidly and minutely orthodox confession on earth, is generally supposed, at this hour, to have a ministry far from being unanimous in loving and honoring her public standards. Now, if creeds have not, in fact, been productive of the great benefit intended by them, even in some of the most favorable cases that can be produced, why be perplexed and burdened with them at all?”
This objection evidently proceeds on the principle, that a remedy which does not accomplish everything, is worth nothing. Because creeds have not completely banished dissension and discord from the churches which have adopted them, therefore they have been of no use. But is this sound reasoning? Does it accord even with common sense, or with the dictates of experience in any walk of life? Because the Constitution of the United States has not completely defended our country from all political animosity and strife, is it, therefore, worthless? Or should we have been more united and harmonious without any constitutional provision at all? Because the system of public law does not annihilate all crime, should we, of course, be as well without it? No one will say this.
Nay, may not the objection be retorted on those who urge it? They contend that creeds are unnecessary; that the Bible is amply sufficient for all purposes, as a test of truth. But has the Bible banished dissension and discord from the church? No one will pretend that it has. Yet why not? Surely not on account of any error or defect in itself; but on account of the folly and perverseness of depraved man, who, amidst all the provisions of infinite wisdom and goodness, is continually warring against the peace of the world.
But I go further, and maintain that the history of the practical influence of creeds is strongly in their favor. Though they have not done everything that could have been desired, they have done much; and much in those very churches which have been most frequently selected as examples of their entire want of efficacy. The Calvinistic articles of the Church of England were the means of keeping her doctrinally pure, to a very remarkable degree, for the greater part of a hundred years. In the reign of James I, very few opponents of Calvinism dared publicly to avow their opinions; and of those who did avow them, numbers were severely disciplined, and others saved themselves from similar treatment by subsequent silence and discretion. The inroads of error, therefore, were very powerfully checked, and its triumph greatly retarded by those public standards. In fact, the great body of the bishops and clergy professed to be doctrinal Calvinists, until a number of years after the Synod of Dort, when, chiefly by the influence of Archbishop Laud, and his creatures, Arminianism was gradually and guardedly brought in, in consequence of which the faithful application of the thirty-nine articles, as a test of orthodoxy, and of admission to the ministry, was discontinued. The articles continued to speak as before, and to be solemnly subscribed; but the spirit of the administration under them was no longer the same. It became predominantly Arminian. We may truly say, then, that the creed of the Church of England continued to operate effectually as a bond of union, and a barrier against the encroachments of heresy, as long as it continued to be faithfully applied, agreeably to its known original purport. When it ceased to be thus applied, it ceased to produce its wonted effect. But can this be reasonably wondered at? As well might we wonder that a medicine, when its use was, laid aside, should no longer heal.
Lax and dishonest subscription.
The very same representation, in substance, may be made concerning the Church of Scotland. Her preeminently excellent creed was the means, under God, of keeping her united and pure, as long as that creed continued to be honestly employed as a test, according to its true intent and spirit. When this ceased to be the case, it would have been strange, indeed, if the state of things had remained as before. It did not so remain. With lax and dishonest subscription, heresy came in: at first, with reserve and caution, but afterwards, more openly. But even to the present day, as all know who are acquainted with the state of that church, the movements of heresy within her bosom are held in most salutary check; and her condition is incomparably more favorable than it could have been, had her public standards been long ago abolished.
Nor have the creeds of those national churches of Great Britain yet accomplished all the benefits to the cause of truth and righteousness which they are destined to confer. Though their genuine spirit has been long since forgotten by many, this is by no means the case with all. There has constantly been, in both those churches, a body of faithful witnesses to the truth. This body, thanks to the Almighty and all-gracious King of Zion! is increasing. Their “good confessions” (cf. 1 Tim. 6:13) form a rallying point, around which numbers are now gathering; and those far-famed formularies, the favorable influence of which has been supposed by many to be long since exhausted, and more than exhausted, will again become, there is every reason to believe, an “ensign to the people” (cf. Isa. 11:10), to which there shall be a flocking of those who love the “simplicity that is in Christ” (cf. 2 Cor. 11:3), more extensive and more glorious than ever before.
Nor are we without significant attestations to the efficacy of creeds, and to the mischief of being without them, in our own country. Of the former, the Presbyterian Church in the United States, is one of the most signal examples. Conflicts she has, indeed, had; but they have been such as were incident to every community, ecclesiastical or civil, administered by the counsels of imperfect men. Amidst them all, she has, by the favor of her Divine Head, held on her way, substantially true to her system of doctrine and order; and though constituted, originally, by members from different countries, and of different habits, she has remained united to a degree, considering all things, truly wonderful. Of the latter, the Congregational churches of Massachusetts, furnish a melancholy memorial. Though originally formed by a people far more homogeneous in their character and habits, and far more united in their opinions; yet, being destitute of any efficient bond of union, and equally destitute of the means of maintaining it, if it had been possessed, they have fallen a prey to dissension and error, to a degree equally instructive and mournful.
Obj. 5. Creeds cause contention, not unity.
5. The last objection which I shall consider is that subscription to creeds has not only failed entirely of producing the benefits contemplated by their friends, but has rather been found to produce the opposite evils, to generate discord and strife. “Creeds,” say some, “instead of tending to compose differences, and to bind the members of churches more closely together, have rather proved a bone of contention, and a means of exciting mutual charges of heresy, and a thousand ill feelings, among those who might have been otherwise perfectly harmonious.”
In reply to this objection, my first remark is that the alleged fact, which it takes for granted, is utterly denied. It is not true that creeds have generated contention and strife in the bosom of those churches which have adopted them. On the contrary, it would be easy to show, by an extended induction of facts, that in those churches in which creeds and confessions have been most esteemed and most regarded, there union and peace have most remarkably reigned. In truth, it has ever been the want of faithful regard to such formularies that has led to division and strife in the church of Christ. I doubt whether any denomination of Christians ever existed, for half a century together, destitute of a public creed, however united and harmonious it might have been, at the commencement of this period, without exhibiting, before the end of it, either that stillness of death, which is the result of cold indifference to the truth, or that miserable scene of discord, in which “parting asunder” (cf. Acts 15:39) was the only means of escaping from open violence.
My next remark is that, even if it were shown that orthodox public creeds are often indirectly connected with conflict and contention in the church, it would form no solid argument against them. Ardent attachment to what they deemed truth is the principle, in all ages, which has led Christian communities to adopt creeds and confessions of faith. The same attachment to truth will naturally lead them to watch with care against everything that is hostile to it; and to “contend earnestly” (cf. Jude 3) in its defense, when it is attacked. In this case, a creed, supposing it to be a sound and scriptural one, is no more the cause of conflict and division, than a wholesome medicine is the cause of that disease which it is intended to cure. The word of God commands us to “contend,” and to “contend earnestly, for the faith once delivered to the saints,” and to hold him “accursed” who preaches “another gospel” than that which the scriptures reveal (Gal. 1:6-9). But when such “contention” becomes necessary, who is to blame for it? Surely not truth, or its advocates, but those who patronize error, and thus endeavor to corrupt the body of Christ and, of course, render contention for the truth a duty. It is granted, indeed, that, in this conflict, much unhallowed temper may be manifested: not only on the part of the advocates of error, but also, in some degree, on the part of the friends of truth. They may contend, even for the truth, with bigotry and bitterness. Still, this does not render the truth itself less precious; or the duty of contending for it less imperative; or those summaries of it which Christians have been led to form less valuable, as testimonies for God.
Before Christianity was preached in the Roman empire, the different classes of Pagans lived together in peace. The foundation of this peace was the opinion that error was innocent; and that all classes of religionists were equally safe. But when the religion of Jesus Christ was preached; when his ministers proclaimed that there was no other system either true or safe; that there was no other foundation of hope; that all false religions were not only highly criminal, but also eternally destructive; and that the followers of Christ could not possibly countenance any of them; then a scene of the most shocking persecution and violence, on the part of the Pagans, commenced. But on what, or on whom, are we to throw the blame for these scenes of violence? No one, surely, will say, on Christianity. We are rather to impute it to the corruption of human nature, and to the blindness and violence of Pagan malice. If the primitive Christians had been willing to give up the precious truth committed to them, and to act upon the principle that all modes of faith were equally safe they might have escaped much, if not the whole of the dreadful persecution which they were called to endure.
The only additional remark, therefore, which I have to make, on the objection before us, is that it can have no force, excepting upon the principle that error ought to be left unassailed, and that contention for the truth is not a duty; for all defense of the truth, against its active opposers all “contending for the truth” (cf. Jude 3) must, of course, disturb that cold and death-like tranquility which indifference to the purity of faith tends to introduce. We are commanded, “if it be possible, as much as lies in us, to live peaceably with all men” (cf. Rom. 12:18). But it is not “possible” to be at peace with some men. We must not be at peace with error or wickedness. The Divine authority makes it our duty to oppose them to the utmost at our peril. And if, in the discharge of this duty, the peace of the church is, for a time, disturbed, the sin lies at the door of those who rendered the conflict necessary. Those summaries of truth, which particular occasions make it important to embody and to publish, are no more to blame for the struggle, than the wise and wholesome law of the land is to blame for that agitation which necessarily attends the seizure, the trial, and the execution of a malefactor.
The Extent of Creeds: Fundamentals only?
But admitting creeds to be lawful and necessary, it has often been asked by some who profess to be their friends, whether they ought ever to contain any other articles than those few which are strictly fundamental: in other words, whether we ought ever to insert among the members of a creed, intended to be subscribed by all candidates for office in a church, any more than some half a dozen articles, the reception of which is generally considered as absolutely essential to Christian character?
This is a question of real importance, which certainly deserves grave consideration, and a candid answer. And for one, I have no hesitation in saying that, in my opinion, church creeds not only lawfully may, but always ought, to contain a number of articles besides those which are fundamental. And to establish this, as it appears to me, no other proof is necessary than simply to remark that there are many points confessedly not fundamental, concerning which, nevertheless, it is of the utmost importance to Christian peace and edification that the members, and especially the ministers, of every church should be harmonious in their views and practice. As long as the visible church of Christ continues to be divided into different sections or denominations, the several creeds which they employ, if they are to answer any effectual purpose at all, must be so constructed as to exclude from each those teachers whom it conscientiously believes to be unscriptural and corrupt; and whom, as long as it retains this belief, it ought to exclude.
To exemplify my meaning: the Presbyterian Church, and most other denominations who have a regular system of government, believe that the Christian ministry is a divine ordinance, and that none but those who have been regularly authorized to discharge its functions ought, by any means, to attempt to preach the gospel, or administer the sacraments of the church. Yet there are very pious, excellent men who have adopted the sentiments of some high-toned Independents, who verily think that every “gifted brother,” whether ordained or not, has as good a right to preach as any man; and, if invited by the church to do it, to administer the sacraments. Now, no sober-minded Presbyterian will consider this as a fundamental question. Fundamental, indeed, it is, to ecclesiastical order; but to the existence of Christian character, it is not. Men may differ entirely on this point, and yet be equally united to Christ by faith, and, of course, equally safe as to their eternal prospects. But would any real, consistent Presbyterian be willing to connect himself with a church, calling itself by that name, in which, while one portion considered none but a regular minister as competent to the discharge of the functions alluded to, as many of the other portion as chose claimed and actually exercised the right to rise in the congregation, and preach, baptize, and dispense the Lord’s Supper, when and how each might think proper; and not only so, but when the ordained ministers occupying the pulpit, in succession, differed no less entirely among themselves in reference to the disputed question; some encouraging, and others repressing, the efforts of these “gifted brethren?” I do not ask whether such a church could be tranquil or comfortable, but whether it could possibly exist in a state of coherence for twelve months together?
Take another example. No man in his senses will consider the question which divides the Paedobaptists and the Antipaedobaptists as a fundamental one. Though I have no doubt that infant baptism is a doctrine of the Bible, and an exceedingly important doctrine; and that the rejection of it is a mischievous error; yet I have quite as little doubt that some eminently pious men have been of a different opinion. But what would be the situation of a church equally divided, or nearly so, on this point; ministers, as well as private members, constantly differing among themselves; members of each party conscientiously persuaded that the others were wrong; each laying great stress on the point of difference, as one concerning which there could be no compromise, or accommodation; all claiming and endeavoring to exercise the right not only to reason, but to act, according to their respective convictions; and every one zealously? Is endeavoring to make proselytes to his own principles and practice? Which would such a church most resemble: the builders of Babel, when their speech was confounded; or a holy and united family, “walking together in the fear of the Lord, and in the consolations of the Holy Ghost, and edifying one another in love?” (cf. Acts 9:31; Eph. 4:16).
Let me offer one illustration more. The question between Presbyterians and Prelatists is generally acknowledged not to be fundamental. I do not mean that this is acknowledged by such of our Episcopal brethren as coolly consign to what they are pleased to call the “uncovenanted mercy of God” all those denominations who have not a ministry episcopally ordained; and who, on account of this exclusive sentiment, are styled by Bishop Andrews, “iron hearted,” and by Archbishop Wake, “madmen.” But my meaning is that all Presbyterians, without exception, a great majority of the best Prelatists themselves, and all moderate, sober-minded Protestants, of every country, acknowledge that this point of controversy is one which does by no means affect Christian character or hope. Still is it not plain, that a body of ministers entirely differing among themselves as to this point, though they might love, and commune with, each other, as Christians could not possibly act harmoniously together in the important rite of ordination, whatever they might do in other religious concerns?
In all these cases, it is evident there is nothing fundamental to the existence of vital piety. Yet it is equally evident that those who differ entirely and zealously concerning the points supposed cannot be comfortable in the same ecclesiastical communion. But how is their coming together, and the consequent discord and strife which would be inevitable, to be prevented? I know of no method but so constructing their confessions of faith as to form different families or denominations, and to shut out from each those who are hostile to its distinguishing principles of order.
It is plain, then, that unless confessions of faith contain articles not, strictly speaking, fundamental, they cannot possibly answer one principal purpose for which they are formed, viz. guarding churches which receive the pure order and discipline, as well as truth, of scripture, from the intrusion of teachers who, though they may be pious, yet could not fail to disturb the peace and mar the edification of the more correct and sound part of the body.