TO THE CHURCHES COMPOSING THE FRANKLIN ASSOCIATION,
Behold how good and how pleasant it is, for brethren to dwell together in unity! Standing fast in one spirit, with one mind, speaking the same thing - of one accord, of one heart, and of one soul - acknowledging one Lord, possessing one faith, one baptism - speaking the truth in love, growing up into him in all things which is the head even Christ - making one body [two words blurred] not one in name or theory only, but one in their religious [blur]ence, one in their views of the plan of salvation; animated and encouraged by the same hope, while observing and practising the same duties. Such is the unity and symmetry of the Church of Jesus Christ as described by the pen of inspiration. In this annual address we propose to consider this question. Is it lawful and expedient, to adhere to a Creed, in the admission of members into the fellowship of the Church, and particularly in the admission of candidates into office?
Creeds formed or enforced by the civil authority, are usurpations, leading to persecution and to despotism; while those formed by voluntary Associations of Christians, enforced by no higher penalty or sanction, than exclusion from membership in the society are not only lawful, but necessary, in the present state of the religious world. - To deny to any religious society the privilege of expressing their views of the Bible in their own words and phrases, and of denying admission to those who reject their views, is a violent interference with the rights of conscience - it is tyranny. - It is to subjugate the many, with all their interest, right, and happiness, to the dictation of one or a few - the very essence of tyranny.
By a creed we mean an epitome or summary exhibition of what the Scriptures teach. Are we to admit members into the church and into office, are we to license and ordain preachers, without enquiring for their creed? Shall we ask them no question in regard to principles, or doctrines? Shall we receive license and ordain candidates, upon a general profession of faith in Christ; requiring of them this only, that they agree to take the Bible for their guide? Can we do this, and still expect to preserve the unity, purity and peace, of the Church?
There are but two methods of admitting members into church, and into office. It must be done either with or without respect to a Creed. - We cannot conceive of any third method. If the church rejects a candidate because he holds Sabellian, Arian or Socinian principles, she then has respect to a Creed - She insists upon her own interpretations of the Bible, upon fundamental points. - She does not deny him the liberty of interpreting the Bible for himself; this would be usurpation - it would be tyranny. - But while he contemns and reviles her views of the Bible, she claims to herself the right of denying to him her fellowship. - She tells him, that her interpretations of the Bible, touching doctrines, considered cardinal are settled. - In other words, that her creed is fixed, and that his hostility to these well settled principles, disqualifies him for membership in her body. If this be an unwarrantable exercise of power, the result is inevitable, that the Church is constrained to receive into her bosom, and cherish with her fellowship, those whom she must esteem her worst enemies; the enemies of truth. Yes without respect to a Creed, she is reduced to the cruel necessity, of harboring under her wings, the vilest heresies that now disgrace the Christian name. Can she do this and incur no guilt? Can she do this and yet preserve her unity, purity, and harmony? Can a Church, a New Testament Church, keeping the unity of the Spirit, in the bond of peace and love, be found in that miserable Babel composed of Trinitarians, Unitarians, Hutchinsonians Universal Restorationists, Rellyan Universalists, Destrovetionists, Swedenborgians, Mystics, Dunkers, Jumpers, Shakers, and all others who profess to take the Bible for their guide? Is there communion between light and darkness, fellowship between righteousness and unrighteousness, concord between Christ and Belial?
If the modern adversaries of all creeds and confessions, should say, that they will not go thus far, that they will not admit into the church, and much less into the ministry, or rather the bishops office, one holding Socinian principles, they evidently yield the question. They admit that in the present state of things, it is both lawful and expedient to have a Creed. They cease to oppose the principle of requiring subscription to a creed; or they merely oppose in theory, what they adopt in practice. - For if they can make one article to exclude a Socinian, they may make another to exclude the Arian, and a third to exclude the Pelagian, and a fourth to exclude the Armenian, &c. &c. adding article to article, untill they get as many as they conceive the exigencies of the church requires. We have not forgotten, that one of our own churches not long ago, in her wrath against all creeds, protested against the Confession of Faith, with its thirty-four articles. but shortly afterwards made one for herself with articles and published it. A memorable instance of anti-creed inconsistency, of which she herself became quickly convinced, and honestly retraced her steps, but not without injury. It is one thing to oppose the principle of requiring a subscription, to a summary of leading principles;
it is quite a different thing to oppose the principles contained in that summary. - And those who would refuse membership, or office, to a Socinian or Universalists, do, by their act, admit the necessity of a creed; and in reviling this principle they revile themselves. If they regard consistency and truth, they will no longer denounce what they are pleased to term "an odious array of creeds and confessions." They will no longer be found associated with Latitudenarians and Heretics, who have been the implacable foes of confessions in every age of the church, from her infancy to this day. They will cease to despise a remedy, merely because it has not healed every malady, cured every disorder. For the same reason they might pour contempt upon the Holy Bible. They will cease to fight against Scripture, Sense, and Reason - against the experience of the church of God, in all ages, which speaks volumes upon this subject. Before the adversaries of creeds can boast of having gained any thing in this controversy, it devolves upon them to do, what we apprehend cannot easily he done; they must exhibit some method, scriptural and practicable, of excluding corruption from the Church, without a creed. It is in vain to say, that the Bible is sufficient for that purpose; for these corruptions grow out of false and spurious interpretations, of the Bible. - And according to their plan, each one is allowed to interpret for himself; to place his own constructions upon the Scriptures. It denies to the Church, the right to interfere in these "matters of conscience." Their Church can only concern with the actions or morals, not with the faith or principles of its members and Bishops. Whether they be sound or unsound in the faith, is a question upon their plan, reserved for the day of Judgment. In such a church, there surely will be found unity and purity, worthy of all admiration and great harmony too, flowing from that charity which throws her mantle over multitudes of errors, great and small.
We do not propose to enquire, how long, or how short, a church covenant, or creed shall be. Nor will we examine, now, into the merits or defects of any existing summary of Faith. These questions do not enter into the present controversy. Is it lawful and expedient for a church to adopt any articles of Faith, whatever, as a test of union and a fence against corruption? This is the enquiry to which the attention of the christian world, has been recently summoned, and to which we respond.
We are not concerned to enquire, whether this creed, should be, written or unwritten; whether it should be registered only in the minds of the members, or for greater certainty, recorded. Our practice evinces, that we are not disposed to leave a matter so essential, to the well being of a church, to the uncertain recollections, to the vague and ever varying impressions of individuals. A nuncupative creed, is not calculated to quiet disturbances, or to exclude corruption If we use a religious test, at all, we should be honest and independent enough, to avow it; and to exhibit its principles, in our
pulpit ministrations, as a tribute to truth and candor, which every christian church, owes to other churches, and to the world around her.
Our confessions are human productions, they may all require revision, and be susceptible of amendment; but to erase them from our books, our memory and our practice, is to make a tremendous leap, a leap into chaos; into the awful vortex of Unitarianism.
It has been said, that to adopt a creed as a religious test, "is to supercede the Bible, and to make a human composition instead of it, a standard of Faith. That when we do this, we offer a public indignity to the sacred volume, as we virtually declared either, that it is not infallible or not sufficient." In reply to this, we use the language of a distinguished divine, who in a few words has exposed its fallacy, and swept it from the arena of eclesiastical [sic] controversy. "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 as of paramount authority. Every principle of this kind, is with one voice disclaimed by all the Creeds, and defences of Creeds, that have appeared in ancient, or modern times, so far as we are informed. 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 deduced from the Scriptures, and to refer to the Scriptures, for the whole of its authority. Of course when any one subscribes to it, he is so far from dishonouring 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 exhalted 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 favourable 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 hath revealed in his word; and while they are denied by some, and frettered 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.
Is there in all this language any thing dishonorable to the Bible; any thing that tends to supercede 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 acknowledgement 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? If this be dishonoring the Scriptures, or setting up a standard above them, there is an end of all meaning, either of words or actions.
But still, we are asked, "if the Scriptures are not plain and easy to
tobe understood? Can we make them plainer than the author has done? Why hold a candle to the Sun &c?" This objection amounts to nothing, while the fact remains undisputed, that thousands who profess to receive the Scriptures, by their false and spurious glosses, do virtually deny the radical doctrines contained therein. The lamentable fact, that the enemy (even now,) comes in like a flood, and it devolves upon every religious society, who would bear witness to the truth, the imperious duty, of lifting up a standard for truth.
Let those who oppose the use of Creeds, answer these questions; Has the Head of the Church made no qualifications, necessary for the admission of members into the Church? Has he made no qualifications necessary for admission into office? Has he established no tribunal on earth, to judge of these qualifications? Is an Arian, Socinian, or Universalist, qualified for either membership, or office? Can it be said, they are not without respect to a Creed? Strip the point in issue of all the tawdry guise, which the ingenuity of modern times has cast over it, and there is scarcely room for controversy. The common sense of every man, revolts at the idea of assembling in the same church, and around the same board, every thing that now bears the name of Christian; many bear it, who consider the worship of Christ abominable idolatry; whom an Apostle would pronounce accursed; whom he would not suffer you to receive into your houses, or bid God speed. Even in his day there were some who preached another Gospel, and there are many such yet. Are you to welcome these into your communion? Has the Spirit of inspiration, any where suggested, that the Church of Jesus Christ, is made up of this mixed assemblage; this heterogeneous group of conflicting elements? Is this the body of Christ fitly joined together and compacted? And what becomes of those heresies, which the Apostle pronounced damnable? Must these too, be embraced and cherished in your fellowship, and affections? Must those who maintain the true Gospel, walk together in Church fellowship, with those who are accursed for preaching another gospel, and who espouse damnable heresies? Is this the New Testament plan? If you say, (as doubtless you will,) that it is not; that such a Society would not be the Church of Christ - the result is this, "If there be any divine warrant, for a Church (in this day,) there is a divine warrant for a Creed, as a test of union, a bond of fellowship, a fence against error, and a shield against that spirit of restless innovation, which, esteems every novelty, an improvement." What shall be its dimensions, its height, or depth, its length or breadth, is not now the topic of enquiry. But one thing is certain, it should be
large enough, to meet the exigencies of the Church, by preserving her, while in the wilderness, exposed to trials, in peace, purity and love; And it should be small enough, to find a lodgment in the heart, of the weakest lamb, sound in the faith. When we cease to "hold fast, our form of sound words," we cease to strive together for the faith of the Gospel; we cease to contend earnestly, for the faith once delivered to the saints. The churches of Jesus Christ, who would shine as lights in the world, amidst the darkness of surrounding corruption, must exhibit to the eyes of each other, and all around, that "good confessions." which they are commanded to profess before many witnesses. Upon this interesting subject, the history of near eighteen centuries should admonish us. To live, as a society, without a Confession of Faith has been often attempted - but we have yet to be informed of the first instance of its succeeding. We understand that the Congregational churches of Massachusetts, have made the dangerous experiment, and like those who have embarked before them in the same presumptuous enterprise, they have fallen a prey to dissention and heresy, to a degree equally instructive and mournful.
Some suppose that a new order of things is about to open on the church, bringing as great a change as ever marked the progress of the Redeemer's kingdom, in any preceding age. In this new and undefined prospect they seem to themselves, to see the approaching prostration of most of those fences, and the dissolution of most of those ties, which have heretofore been regarded as indispensable for the maintainance of unity and harmony, in the family of Christ. We consider it time enough, to provide for "this new order of things, when it shall arrive." Were all religious societies, to give into that quixotic scheme, which proposes to assemble and to amalgamate them into one church, while they retain their various conflicting and opposite views of the Bible, the era would be new, unprecedented and unparalleled. But who, or what could dwell, in this non-descript community? It is possible, that genuine Arianism, which believes in two God's, a great and a lesser one; and in two Creator's, one supreme, and the other subordinate, might dwell there. That modern Unitarianism, the votaries of which, affect to call themselves, "rational Christians;" who deny our Lord's divinity, and the distinct personal existence of the Holy Ghost; the doctrines of original sin, and the atonement; who discard the belief of the miraculous conception, and the worship of Christ, in which they outstrip the Tuscan Apostle, Faustus Socinus himself. These might dwell there: and Socinianism of the lowest dye, which ridicules the very idea of the existence and agency of the Devil; of the spirituality and separate existence of the soul; of an intermediate state between death, and the general resurrection; and of the eternity of future punishments; all this might dwell there. And even the disciples of Robert Sandeman, who believe that the whole benefit of the work, finished by Christ in his death, is conveyed to men only, by the Apostolic report concerning it, that everyone who understands this report to be true, or is persuaded that the event actually happened, as testified by the Apostles, is justified, and finds relief to his guilty conscience. That he is relieved by finding their report to be true; that the event itself, which is
reported, becomes his relief, so soon as it stands true in his own mind; that all the divine power which operates on the minds of men, either to give the first relief to their consciences, or to influence them in every part of their obedience to the gospel, is persuasive power, or the forcible conviction of truth; and of course they have no use for the Holy Spirit in this business: - all these might possibly dwell there; those who has made shipwreck of the faith; those tossed to, and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine; those who consider erroneous views of the plan of salvation quite innocent, or unimportant, who have sunk into a state chilling indifference to gospel truth; and suppose all contending for its essential and distinguishing doctrines, useless or perhaps criminal, all these may be found there. But what conscientious Christian who has received the truth as it is in Jesus, who scorns to compromise away his principles, would aspire to a name, and a place, in this church, without a Creed: this Babel confederacy.
Beloved brethren. - Be ye steadfast, unmoveable always abounding in the work of the Lord; be strong In the Lord, and in the power of his might, by a continual reliance on him for protection, support and assistance; put on the whole armour of God, which in the fullness of Christ, and in the graces of the Spirit is provided for every believer, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the DeviI. By prayerful, vigilant, ardent and, persevereing [sic] efforts labour to strengthen and draw closer the bonds of union; strive to hold on your way, turning neither to the right hand, nor to the left, esteeming it your highest honor and happiness, to be employed as humble instruments in building up that kingdom, which is from generation to generation. Pray for the coming and enlargement of God’s kingdom, for when it shall be fully come, the whole earth, shall be filled with its glory; wars shall cease unto the ends of the earth; the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole Heaven's, shall be given to the people of the saints, of the Most High. – Then shall the bride, the Lamb's wife, look forth as the morning, clear as the sun, fair as the moon, and terrible as an army with banners. She shall come out of the wilderness like pillars of smoke, leaning upon her beloved and shall dwell in peace.- Till then, she must try the Spirits, while sailing through seas of conflict and tribulation. Brethren, let us be admonished and encouraged by the voice of the Spirit unto the churches. These things saith the first and the last, which was dead and is alive; I know thy works, tribulation and poverty, (but thou art rich,) and I know the blasphemy of them which say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer. - Be thou faithful unto death, and I wilI give thee a crown of life.
N. B. The writer suggested, that he was indebted to Dr. Miller, for some of the leading views in this letter, expressed in his own language.
Note. -- The above Circular Letter was written by Silas M. Noel.
S. M. NOEL, Moderator.
JAMES FORD, Clerk.
[From Minutes of the Franklin Baptist Association, 1826, pp. 6-12; via SBTS Archives digital documents. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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