« AnteriorContinuar »
had no quarrel with the Presbyterians in respect to matters of doctrine; even as the English Presbyterians had no quarrel with the low-church Episcopalians of this period, so far as relates to points of faith. Owen heartily adopted the Westminster Confession, and Twisse and the whole Westminster Assembly would have been content with ihe doctrinal part of the 39 articles. The Calvinists of England within the Establishment, and the Calvinists of England without the Establishment, were both alike opposed to Arminianism, and were equally earnest for those well discriminated creed-statements which mark off the faith of Geneva from that of Leyden.
The English Independents differed from the English Presbyterians solely upon the subject of ecclesiastical polity. And when, therefore, they appointed their committee at the Savoy in 1658 (exactly two hundred years ago) to draw up a confession of faith, that should organize the denomination, and hold it together, they instructed them to keep close To the Westminster upon doctrinal points, but to engraft the Congregational form of polity upon the old historical Calvinism that had come down to the Presbyterians themselves through Dort and Geneva.1
These well-known and familiar facts are sufficient to show, that the founders and fathers of English Congregationalism were imbued with reverence for the ancient symbolism of the Protestant church, arid felt that their small and feeble denomination, which was then struggling for existence amidst the convulsions of churches and states, must be held together, and made strong, by the strength of God's truth stated unequivocally and exhaustively in a creed-form.
The Congregational churches of New England were animated by the same feeling. Their leading minds, also, were of the same stamp, and theological affinities, with John Owen and John Howe. The pastor of the Plymouth pilgrims during their sojourn in Holland, the one who commended them to the protection of God when they embarked upon that hazardous voyage, and who told them that the
1 Ncale, II. 178.
Bible was not yet exhausted, and that " more light," he believed, was still to "break forth" from it, was John Robinson. But John Robinson believed in no light from the Bible that did not shine more and more upon the path of the Calvinist. John Robinson was a very vigilant observer of the most subtle and perplexing controversy in modern doctrinal history, that between Calvinism and Arminianism, and took a part in it. Bradford informs us that the pastor of the Pilgrims was " terrible to the Arminians,"1 and that too, it should be noticed, at a period in the history of Arminianism when the little finger of the progenitor was not so thick as the loins of some of the posterity. The controlling spirits among the clergy of the first New England colonies were also men of the same theological character, and tendencies, with the Owens and the Robinsons. The membership of the first New England churches had been born into the kingdom, through the instrumentality of a style of preaching, and indoctrination, searching, systematic, and orthodox, in the highest degree.
1 " In these times, also, were the great troubles raised by the Arminians; who, as they greatly molested the whole State, so this city in particular, in which was the chief university; so as there were daily and hot disputes in the schools thereabouts. And as the students and other learned were divided in their opinions herein, so were the two professors or divinity readers themselves, the one daily teaching for it, and the other against it; which grew to that pass, that few of the disciples of the one would hear the other teach. But Mr. Kobinson, although he taught thrice a week himself, and wrote sundry books, besides his manifold pains otherwise, yet he went constantly to hear their readings, and heard as well one as the other. By which means he was so well grounded in the controversy, and saw the force of all their arguments, and knew the shifts of the adversary; and being himself very able, none was fitter to buckle with them than himself, as appeared by sundry disputes; so as he began to be terrible to the Arminians; which made Episcopius, the Arminian professor, to put forth his best strength, and set out sundry theses, which by public dispute he would defend against all men. Now Polyander. the other professor, and the chief preachers of the city, desired Mr. Hobinson to dispute against him. But he was loth, being a stranger. Yet the other did importune him, and told him that such was the ability and nimblencss of wit of the adversary, that the truth would suffer if he did not help them; so as he condescended, and prepared himself against the time. And when the time came, the Lord did so help him to defend the truth and foil his adversary, as he put him to an apparent nonplus in this great and public audience. And the like he did two or three times upon such like occasions " — Bradford's History of Plymouth Colony, Congregational Board's edition, pp 256, 257.
It was natural, therefore, that the Congregationalism of the New World should be marked by the same respect for the old historical faith which we have noticed in the English Independency. In 1648, ten years before the English Independents adopted their symbol at Savoy, the vigorous and vital churches scattered through the forests, and among the savages, of New England, sent their delegates to Cambridge, who drew up a confession of which the doctrinal part was adopted verbally from that of Westminster, while the polity of the symbol was made to conform to their own Congregational theory and usage. Thirty-two years after this, the churches of the province of Massachusetts met in synod, and drew up the only original symbol that has yet been constructed by an ecclesiastical body of Congregationalists. The Boston Confession of 1680, still retained as its creed by one of the oldest churches in the city of Boston,1 though modelled very much after those of Westminster and Savoy, purports to be the work of a Congregational Synod, and in this regard has more claim to the respect of the descendants of the Pilgrims than any other symbol. Twenty eight years after the formation of the Boston Confession, the churches in the Connecticut colony sent their representatives to Saybrook to construct a symbol for their use. This synod adopted the Boston Confession of 1680, as an expression of doctrinal belief, and made a fuller statement of what they deemed to be the Congregational polity.
This brief survey is sufficient to show that those who laid the foundations of Congregationalism, in the Old world, and in the New, were in hearty sympathy with that body of doctrine which received its precise and technical statement in the creeds of the Reformation, and more particularly in that carefully discriminated system which was the result of the debate between Calvinism and Arminianism. The carefulness, and the frequency (three times within sixty years), with which symbols were drawn up and sent forth by
i The Old South.
the first Congregational churches evinces that both the individual theologian, and the denomination as a whole, craved a distinct, and publicly adopted, rule of faith and practice, as that which should help them to study the Scriptures understandingly, and should bind them together ecclesiastically. Reverence for a common denominational creed belongs, then, historically, to the Congregational church, as it does to all those well-compacted churches whose career constitutes the history of vital Christianity upon earth. In seeking to deepen and strengthen this reverence, we are not going contrary to the primal instinct and native genius of Congregationalism; we are not engrafting any wild shoots into the church of our forefathers; we are simply inhaling and exhaling, their pure, their exact, their thorough-going spirit.
1. Passing now to the discussion of the theme itself, we remark, in the first place, as a reason for a stronger symbolical feeling in Congregationalism, that an intensely free system, like our own, is the one that derives all the advantages, and escapes all the evils, that result from the organific power of a symbol.
Were the church which we honor and love already rigid and solid by reason of an inherent tendency of its own to centralization, there might be reason to fear any and every consolidating influence. But Congregationalism is made up of dynamic forces and flowing lines, and its intrinsic tendency is to liberty and diffusion. There is no church that has so little of form, and figure, and organization, as our own. Like the church gathered in the upper room, its constitution is almost invisible. We are vastly nearer to pure spirit, than to pure matter. Our body is nearly as immaterial as some souls. There is little danger, therefore, that Congregationalism will receive detriment from a centripetal force, particularly if that force does not issue from polity, or judicatories, but from doctrine. And there is no danger that it will proceed from either government or ecclesiastical mechanism. The political structure of our denomination is as well defined and settled as that of the Papacy itself, and stands even less chance of alteration. No centralizing force
Vol. XV. No. 59. 57
can be brought to bear from this quarter. The very attempt to establish judicatures within Congregationalism, and to unify and consolidate the denomination by means of polity, would be suicidal; and therefore, though there may be secessions and departures from it, there can be no internal change of the denomination as a whole, unless we suppose an entire transmutation and transubstantiation of it into something that is not Congregationalism.
The only power, then, that can unify the denomination, and make its various atoms and elements feel that there is a deeper life and bond of union than that of polity, is the power of doctrine; the power of a common faith; the power of a self-chosen denominational creed. And this is both a salutary and safe power, in reference to a system so highly republican as our own. For in this exuberance of democratic life, and this expansive freedom, lies our danger. The centrifugal force, if unbalanced, will shoot the star madly from its sphere. Considering that our natural tendencies are those of growth, progress, and liberty, and that all natural tendencies perpetuate themselves, our watchfulness ought to have reference to such traits as unity, solidarity, and harmony. That which is spontaneous need give us no anxiety; but that which is to be acquired, which is the result of effort and of self-education, should be the chief object in the eye.
We may derive an illustration from the province of political philosophy. The question whether conservatism or progress shall be the preponderating element in the state, will be answered by the wise man in view of the general condition of things in the commonwealth. He whose lot is cast among the hereditary prerogatives and orders of the English state, if he follows the wise course, will side with the Liberals; while the very same man, if called to live and net in the midst of the fierce democracies and conflicts of a new and rankly growing nation like our own, will side with Conservatism. For there is little danger, in the early and formative eras of a nation's history, particularly if there be an immense fund of vital force, and vast continental spaces to