Denominational Honesty and Honor



Honesty is as important in theology as in trade and commerce, in a religious denomination as in a political party. Denominational honesty consists, first, in a clear unambiguous statement by a Church of its doctrinal belief; and, second, in an unequivocal and sincere adoption of it by its members. Both are requisite. If a particular denomination makes a loose statement of its belief which is capable of being construed in more than one sense, it is so far dishonest. If the creed of the denomination is well-drawn and plain, but the membership subscribe to it with mental reservation and insincerity, the denomination is dishonest. Honesty and sincerity are founded in clear conviction, and clear conviction is founded in the knowledge and acknowledgment of the truth. Heresy is a sin, and is classed by St. Paul among the "works of the flesh," along with "adultery, idolatry, murder, envy, and hatred," which exclude from the kingdom of God (Gal. 5: 19-21). But heresy is not so great a sin as dishonesty. There may be honest heresy, but not honest dishonesty. A heretic who acknowledges that he is such, is a better man than he who pretends to be orthodox while subscribing to a creed which he dislikes, and which he saps under pretence of improving it and adapting it to the times. The honest heretic leaves the Church with which he no longer agrees; but the insincere subscriber remains within it in order to carry out his plan of demoralization.

The recent discussions in the Presbyterian Church have disclosed a difference of sentiment respecting the value of denominational honesty. Some of the secular newspapers charge intolerance and persecution upon Presbyterians, when departures from the church creed are made the subject of judicial inquiry, and when individuals are required to conform their teaching from the pulpit or the chair to the denominational standards. In this way a part of the public press is conniving at denominational dishonesty. It would permit church officers to subscribe to a creed and derive the benefit of subscription in the form of reputation or emolument, while working against it. The creed of a Church is a solemn contract between church-members; even more so than the platform of a political party is between politicians. The immorality of violating a contract, a portion of the press does not seem to perceive when a religious denomination is concerned; but when a political party is the body to be affected by the breach of a pledge, none are sharper to see and none are more vehement to denounce the double-dealing. Should a faction arise within the Republican party, for example, and endeavor to alter the platform while still retaining the offices and salaries which they had secured by professing entire allegiance to the party, and promising to adopt the fundamental principles upon which it was founded and by which it is distinguished from the Democratic and other political parties, the charge of political dishonesty would ring through the whole rank and file of Republicanism. And when in the exercise of party discipline such factionists are turned out of office, and perhaps expelled from the political organization, if the cry of political heresyhunting and persecution should be raised, the only answer vouchsafed by the Republican press would be that of scorn. When political dishonesty would claim toleration under cover of more "liberal" politics than the part}* is favoring, and would keep hold on party emoluments while advocating different sentiments from those of the mass of the party, it is curtly told that no one is compelled to join the Republican party or to remain in it, but that if a person does join it or remain in it, he must strictly adopt the party creed and make no attempts, secret or open, to alter it. That a Republican creed is for Republicans and no others, seems to be agreed on all sides; but that a Calvinistic creed is for Calvinists and no others, seems to be doubted by some.

The advocates of this view of a church creed and of creed subscription defend it upon the ground that it is proper to introduce improvements into a denominational creed; that the progress in physics and the spirit of the age require new statements of ethics and religion; and that this justifies the rise within a denomination of a party to make them, and requires that the denomination quietly look on and see it done. This means, for illustration, that a Church adopting the historical eschatology is bound to allow such of its members as think restorationism is an improvement, to attempt the introduction of it into the articles of faith ; or that a Church adopting the Wesleyan Arminianism is obligated to let any of its members who think unconditional election preferable to conditional, endeavor to Calvinize it by introducing this tenet. But should a corresponding liberty be demanded in the political sphere, it would meet with no favor. If in the heart of the Democratic party a school should arise who should claim the right, while still remaining in the party, to convert the body to Republican principles and measures, it would be told that the proper place for such a project is outside of Democracy, not within it. The right of the school to its own opinions would not be disputed, but the right to maintain and spread them with the funds and influence of the Democratic party would be denied. Democrats to a man would employ Luther's illustration in a similar instance: "We cannot prevent the birds from flying over our heads, but we can prevent them from making their nests in our hair." They would say to the malecontents, "We cannot prevent you from having your own peculiar views and do not desire to, but you have no right to ventilate them in our organization." Should the officers of the New York custom-house or post-office insist upon employing the salaries of these large institutions in transforming the politics of the party that placed them there, no cry of " persecution " would deter the party from immediately cashiering the whole set. And yet some of the secular press, and some also of the religious, contend that it is proper for subscribers to the Westminster Confession to attempt a radical alteration of the denominational theology from within the denomination, and that it is suppressing free inquiry and the right of private judgment when seven-eighths of the Presbyterian Church represented in its highest court, put a veto upon such an attempt.

In such ecclesiastical action there is no denial of the right of private judgment, and of free inquiry into any system of doctrine whatever; only, it is claimed that those who dissent from the accepted creed of the denomination, if they are a minority, must go outside of it if they wish to construct a new scheme. The satisfied majority have the right of free inquiry and private judgment as well as the dissatisfied minority, and in the exercise of it stand by the creed as it is. Consequently, if discontent with the denominational standard arises in the minds of some, the proper place for their experiments in theologizing is within a new organization, and not in the old one which does not like their experiments. For this reason, from time immemorial, a religious denomination has always claimed the right to expel persons who are heretics as judged by the denominational creed. Only in this way can a denomination live and prosper. To throw down its doctrinal limits and convert itself into an unfenced common for all varieties of belief to ramble over, would not be useful either to society or religion.

But here the question arises, Who is to interpret the church creed, and say whether a proposed scheme of doctrine agrees with it, or contradicts it? Who is to say what is heresy from the stand-point of the denominational system? Certainly the denomination, and not the individual or school which is charged with heresy. This is a point of great importance. For those who are charged with heterodoxy commonly define orthodoxy in their own way, and claim not to have departed from what they regard as the essentials of the denominational system. The Arminian party in the Dort controversy contended that their modifications of doctrine were moderate and not antagonistic to the Reformed creeds. The Semi-Arians in the English Church asserted that their view of the Trinity did not differ essentially from that of the Nicene fathers. In each of these instances, the accused party complained that their statements were misapprehended by their opponents, and contended that the Church was mistaken in supposing that they could not be harmonized with the ancestral faith. The same assertion of being misunderstood and the same claim to be orthodox, marks the existing trial in the Presbyterian Church.

Now in determining what is the true meaning of the phraseology in a proposed alteration of the denominational creed, and what will be the natural influence of it if it is allowed to be taught, it is plain that it is for the denomination to decide. In case of a difference in understanding and interpreting a written document containing proposed changes in the church creed, the rule of the common law applies, that the accused party cannot be the final judge of the meaning and tendency of his own document, but that the court must be. And the denomination is the court. There is no hardship or unfairness in this. A denominational judgment is very certain to be equitable, be it in Church or State. The history of politics shows that the decisions of the great political parties respecting the real meaning of their platforms, and the conformity of individuals with them, have generally been correct. And the history of religion also shows that the judgments of the great ecclesiastical bodies respecting the teachings of their standards, and the agreement or disagreement of particular schools of theology with them, have been accurate. Those individuals and parties who have been declared to be heterodox, politically or theologically, by the deliberate vote of the body to which they belonged, have generally been so. It is rare that the majority has been in error, and the minority in the right.

Denominational honesty is closely connected with denominational honor. Those churches which have been the most frank in announcing their creed, and the most strict in insisting upon an honest interpretation and adoption of it by their membership, have been characterized by a scrupulous regard for the rights of other churches. Being satisfied with their own doctrinal position, and confident of the truth of their articles of faith, they have not invaded other denominations in order to alter their creed or to obtain their prestige. In this respect, the Calvinists of Christendom compare favorably with some of their opponents who charge them with illiberality and bigotry. It is true that in the times when the union of Church and 164 THIS BOOK IS DUE OK THE LAST DATE STAMPED BELOW


State was universal, and the spread of any other religion but that of the State was regarded as menacing to the political weal, Calvinists like all other religious parties endeavored to suppress all creeds but the established. But they were ever in the van for the separation of Church and State, and for the religious toleration which naturally accompanies this. And ever since religious toleration has become the principle of Christendom, and the Protestant right of private judgment has become dominant, Calvinism has not been intolerant, or disposed to interfere with the creeds, institutions, and emoluments of other chinches. It sets a good example in this respect. There is no instance upon record, that we remember, in which Calvinists have secretly tampered with the creed of another ecclesiastical bod\', and endeavored to seduce its membership from their loyalty to the articles of belief publicly adopted by them. From their own open and declared Calvinistic position, they have of course criticised and opposed other creeds, because they believed them to be more or less erroneous, but they have never adopted the plan of creeping into another denomination by subscribing to its articles, and then from that position endeavoring to revolutionize the body which it professed to join in good faith. No part of Christendom has been more free from insincerity and dissimulation than the Calvinistic churches.

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