confession time

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 The Confession was no longer what the Church confessed – the criterion ‘is it consistent with the Confession’ was no longer applicable for evaluating whether or not a minister could preach a given doctrine.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.

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19 thoughts on “confession time

  1. Yes, I find it hard to take that site seriously. Christians Together in the Highlands, but so exclusive of the very kind of Christians who are most characteristic of the Highlands.

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  2. Please could you clarify for the benefit of an outsider: what is the status of the Westminster Confession within the Free Church of Scotland and the Free Church (Continuing); how does this (or these?) differ from the Free Presbyterian position?

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  3. I note that among other criticisms made of the WCF on the Christians Together site, the Confession is accused of “failing to teach on the (major) doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Godhead”. Extraordinary.

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  4. I’ve put things longwindedly.

    First thing to say is that this is strictly a question about the visible church and has to be taken in the context that all believers have an invisible unity irrespective of denominational boundaries.

    Next thing is to make a distinction between the status of the WCF within any organised group of believers and the reasons for these groups remaining separate from each other.

    As far as I understand, the official status of the WCF is the same in the FP, FC, and FCC, that is, the WCF is their subordinate standard which ministers and elders are required to subscribe simpliciter. How this works out in practice may differ slightly in one or more of these in that some ministers/elders may have opinions which differ from the WCF on the occasional point, but let’s just say that in principle the WCF is (and would in principle function as) the subordinate standard of each of them.

    Why these three nevertheless remain separate from each other notwithstanding their shared(-in-principle) view of the WCF is an awkward question which I will/can only answer from the point of view of the FPCoS.

    From the FP point of view the current status of the WCF in the present Free Church dates only from 1900 (when the minority who were left in the “Declaratory Act Free Church” after one of these mergers which result in more bodies than they started with repealed the 1892 Act). From the FP point of view it was good that that group put themselves on a better footing in relation to the WCF than they’d previously had, but their doing so didn’t affect the identity of the FPCoS as the embodiment of the 1560-1843 testimony from 1893 on. From the FP point of view the separation continued after 1900 on account of the refusal of the confessionally minded FC minority to recognise the 1893 testimony.

    Again from the FP point of view, the FCC is a secession from the 1900 Free Church. There are varying degrees of sympathy in the FPs for the claim of the FCC to be the Free Church Continuing. Some FPs would accept this claim. Other FPs would rather recognise the Free Church to be the “real” Free Church of 1900 (without, obviously, abandoning the FP claim to be the real Free Church of 1843). This is because the root of the FC/FCC split is essentially a disciplinary rather than doctrinal dispute and historically, disciplinary issues are no grounds for church splits. Either way, the FCC represent all the constitutional headaches surrounding the 1900 FC plus some, even though there are more similarities between the FPs and FCCs in terms of ethos and formal commitment to purity of worship than there are between the FPs and FCs.

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  5. A list of half a dozen to a dozen issues that would have to be addressed before any progress could be made in discussions with the FCC was recently printed in an official FP publication, though from memory I have a feeling it was someone’s opinon rather than being an official FP statement on the matter. I don’t remember whether it was in the FP magazine, or part of a report in last year’s Synod proceedings/reports book.

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  6. Oh, I hadn’t realised that list had been printed. (Maybe synod proceedings, as I haven’t read the recent ones?) As far as I understand, it’s not an official statement. There are differences both real and perceived (and exaggerated and imaginary), and they need to be addressed frankly. Openness to dialogue is absolutely essential. Any thoughts on the contents of the list?

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    • Just looked this up. It’s in the May 2011 Proceedings of Synod, Page 16, 17. Part of the Report of the Religion and Morals Committee and is a tentative list of likely areas of difference. I was confusing it slightly with the article about the Reformed Presbyterians which was in the FP magazine and if I remember aright was not by a minister, and not having official status further than having been passed for printing by the editor(s) of the magazine.

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  7. Having been to Scotland as a teenager, I stayed in Oban and attended the Free Church. Coming from a “right-wing” Dutch Reformed background, it seemed quite similar. Now, reading your blog, I find your FP stance alike, too. Am I missing part of the puzzle?

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  8. I’m pretty sure that anyone with a Dutch Reformed background would find themselves very much at home in either the Free Church or the FPs :-)

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    • “anyone”? I’ve known people who would find the lack of hats at most Free church congregations deeply disturbing, as also would be modern Bible versions, women in trousers, etc etc. Certain types of Dutch Reformed people would take one look and say “that’s not our kind of church”. Whereas it would take hearing some FP preachers to discover that the form of Calvinism preached would make them uncomfortable.

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