We’re coming up to a very significant, and depressing, anniversary this May. In May, 120 years ago, there was a fundamental change in the relationship between the Church (in Scotland) and its creed. The church in question was the Church of Scotland, Free (which from 1843 had picked up where the Church of Scotland, Erastianised, had left off, embodying the testimony of the 1560 Reformation); its creed was, of course, the Westminster Confession; and what made the change was the infamous Declaratory Act.
Which means that next year, we will have the 120th anniversary of the separate existence of the Church of Scotland, Free and Presbyterian. In my own mind, I think the founding fathers made a big tactical mistake when they used ‘presbyterian’ as their defining term instead of ‘confessional.’ Because really, what the Free Presbyterian Church is all about, is being Free in the 1843 sense and confessional, in the Westminster sense. (Anyone can be presbyterian, but a Westminster presbyterian? that takes a Macfarlane and a Macdonald.)
Just to recap. It wasn’t till well into the 1800s that it stopped being uncontroversial that the church confessed the Westminster Confession because it, the Westminster Confession, was the most accurate and the fullest statement available of what Scripture teaches.
Since the identity of The Church is virtually coextensive with the Scripturalness of the doctrine it proclaims, changing the creed, or changing the relationship between church and creed, would obviously be a major undertaking. All the more so, when the nature of the change is not a progression towards better understanding of what scripture teaches but regression to a sub-Christian position on fundamental issues. In the 1870s-90s, the most serious doctrinal disputes were over the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture and the nature and extent of the atonement, and the favourite contemporary views were either ancient errors resurrected or up to the minute rationalism.
The act passed in 1892 by the Church of Scotland (Free) was specifically designed – not necessarily to enshrine erroneous or heretical positions as the actual doctrine of the church, but – to neutralise the Confession as the standard of true vs false doctrine: which meant in effect, to obliterate the distinction between orthodox versus heterodox views. The Confession was no longer what the Church confessed – the criterion ‘is it consistent with the Confession’ was no longer applicable for evaluating whether or not a minister could preach a given doctrine. And what then, for the testimony of the Reformation?
Technically, the reason for the separate existence of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland is its unique commitment to the Westminster Confession. It was certainly unique in 1893. It remained certainly if less undisputedly unique after 1900. It remains – you know I can’t not say it – unique now. The truths of the Confession is what the FPs are for: reformed in doctrine, first and foremost, as well as in worship and in practice.
This point bears underlining because there often seems to be a temptation to define ourselves in the seemingly more straightforward terms of what we do and don’t do – almost, if you like, putting the order back to front, prioritising practice then worship, and tagging on doctrine as a taken-for-granted. But obviously this makes things less straightforward overall. Partly because any collection of people can agree among themselves to adhere to a ‘strict’ lifestyle and ‘conservative’ habits of worship. These things aren’t what constitute a church though – they’re meaningless without doctrine. But more seriously also because you can’t justify remaining separate from other groups of believers merely on the grounds of differences in practice and worship. If it was really only worship and practice that distinguished us from the other available denominations, there would be no excuse for failing to disband the Free Presbyterian Church, like, yesterday, in order to join up with our fellow-believers in other denominations. Our doctrine, or more specifically our consistent adherence to the Westminster Confession in its totality, is the only thing that legitimises our separateness. This is our identity, and it’s an identity worth maintaining.
Recently I heard that some of the people who have been involved in Scotland’s latest ecclesiastical reshuffle have expressed the wish – the dream – the aspiration – that there could be one single church in Scotland where everyone who believes the Westminster doctrines and values purity of worship could join together. Well, here’s some news for you. We in the Free Presbyterian Church share this wish. We’ve been wishing it for the past nearly 120 years. We’ve been longing and waiting for the time to come when all of Scotland’s Christians would rediscover the value of the Westminster doctrines and the function of the Westminster Confession. We’ve been dreaming of times when people would want to worship God in scriptural purity and New Testament simplicity again. Our oldest and godliest saints call this time “better days” and they’ve been praying for it ever since May 1893. It’s one of the deepest wishes of the Free Presbyterian heart.
Instead, what we get is one message loud and clear, and that is: that wherever people will turn for a Westminster-confessional, Regulative-Principle-compliant witness, it isn’t the Free Presbyterians. People – good people – people we love and respect – our fellow believers in Christ – will do anything and go anywhere, and split churches and divide congregations, before they’ll recognise the testimony of 1893 and the commitment to Westminster doctrine and purity of worship that there’s been from 1893 to date. So we watch from the sidelines as Church of Scotland evangelicals can’t quite bring themselves to join the Free Church, and as Free Church evacuees, twice over in the last decade, pointedly prefer an identity in terms of ‘ex-Free Church’ over an identity ‘Reformed in doctrine, worship, and practice.’
So if things were depressing in 1892, they’re pretty grim now. But the solution is the same: for believers to rally round the truth of Scripture. Maybe, before the 120th anniversary, better days will come.