The Need for Creeds

Do you wonder what it means to be a confessional Presbyterian? It is one thing to understand Presbyterianism, a form of church government and worship; it is another to understand the importance and value of confessions or creeds. 

We have some resources to help understand Presbyterianism, of course; but this post is especially meant to highlight resources on confessionalism, as understood by Presbyterians, which are available at Log College Press. 

  • Samuel Miller, The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions (1824);
  • Francis Robert Beattie, "A Brief Description of the Great Christian Creeds" and "The Nature and uses of Religious Creeds" in The Presbyterian Standards: An Exposition of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (1896);
  • Robert Lewis Dabney, "The Doctrinal Contents of the Confession—Its Fundamental and Regulative ideas; and the Necessity and Value of Creeds" in Memorial Volume of the Westminster Assembly, 1647-1897 (1897);
  • James D. Tadlock, "The Relation of the [Westminster] Standards to Other Creeds" in Memorial Volume of the Westminster Assembly, 1647-1897 (1897);
  • B.B. Warfield, The Significance of the Westminster Standards as a Creed (1898); and
  • Egbert Watson Smith, The Creed of Presbyterians (1901).

    These works have much to say about why we need to articulate Scriptural truths in creedal form, and how they benefit the church. Take a look and consider especially what Miller, Beattie, and Dabney have to say about the need for creeds. 

Was John Calvin Ordained?

A question that has often been asked of Presbyterians who believe that ordination that is required for the pastoral ministry runs like this: Was John Calvin ever ordained? Indeed, it is often assumed that he was not, in fact, ordained. If not, what does mean for the Presbyterian theory of ordination? If so, by who, when, and where? 

This historical question with ecclesiological ramifications is taken up in Vol. 3 of Thomas Smyth's Complete Works and in the individual volume titled Calvin and His Enemies: A Memoir of the Life, Character, and Principles of Calvin. There is both a chapter titled "A Supplementary Vindication of the Ordination of Calvin" and further discussion of Calvin's ordination in Appendix V. These remarks affirm that Calvin was indeed ordained, and while specific records of this historical fact are lacking, the event itself cannot be denied based on the evidence given by Smyth. 

He begins his essay by affirming an important point: "The validity of Presbyterian ordination depends, IN NO MANNER OR DEGREE, upon the ordination of Calvin." The problems or challenges for Presbyterians that might result from a certain answer to the question above may equally present problems or challenges for those opposed to Presbyterian church government. As Smyth argues further on, the same lack of details that the historical record yields regarding the date, location and persons involved in Calvin's ordination might apply to the parallel case of Bishop Joseph Butler more than a century later, whose ordination is nevertheless disputed by no one (hence "they who live in glass houses ought not to throw stones"). However, in fact, this is an historical question that does not make or break the Presbyterian doctrine of ordination for the pastoral office, which stands upon Scripture.

Delving into the historical question, Smyth adduces the testimony of Calvin himself, Theodore Beza and Franciscus Junius the Elder to show that he was indeed an ordained presbyter. He also highlights the practice of the Presbytery of Geneva, and the fact that this point was not controverted within his lifetime by his Roman Catholic or other enemies who had reason to make his supposed lack of ordination a point of contention. 

Both the historical record and the implications of whether Calvin was unordained, ordained in the Roman Church, or ordained as Protestant minister of the gospel (or both) are addressed by Smyth head-on. He presents a solid argument to show that Calvin was indeed ordained by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Presbytery of Geneva. 

Take time to familiarize yourself with Smyth's remarks on this question because it has been raised for centuries and is still raised today, although the question, this writer believes, was clearly settled in the 19th century, if not earlier. In Smyth's separate biography of Calvin, see Chap. IX, pp. 84-101, and Appendix V, pp. 160-162; in Vol. 3 of Smyth's Complete Works, see Chap. IX, pp. 360-368, and Appendix V, pp. 390-391 (the biography is dated 1856, and Vol. 3 of Smyth's Complete Works was published in 1908; the latter discussion of Calvin's ordination is a slightly expanded edition of the earlier). This is a question with an answer to be had, and Smyth has answered well. 

Do You Have These American Presbyterian General Assembly Digests?

The General Assemblies of the Presbyterian Church in America and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church were held this week. At some point in the near future the minutes of these assemblies will be approved, and then in the more distant future a digest of these minutes, and the minutes of other years' assemblies, will be compiled for historical record and easy reference. Digests are a great blessing for the historian and the church government wonk, and some are available on the Log College Press website. 

Several Digests were published in the first half of the 19th century, but Samuel Baird's Digest (published in 1856) is the most well known. It covers all the way back to the beginning of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Digests were also published in 1859, 1861, 1873, 1886, 1898, and 1907. None of these are currently on our site. We do have the 1923 Digest compiled by Lewis Seymour Mudge for the Northern Presbyterian Church, as well as W. A. Alexander's Digest of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (the Southern Presbyterian Church) in 1888, covering the years 1861-1888. 

These books will not be interesting even to all who love Presbyterianism, or even all who love General Assembly. But for the handful of individuals who enjoy reading Assembly minutes, we hope you find access to these documents useful.

Jure Divino Presbyterianism

"The Southern Presbyterian Church was committed from its initial organization in 1861 to a theory of the church advanced by Thomas Cartwright in England in the latter part of the 16th century, embodied in the Scottish Second Book of Discipline (1581) and championed by James Henley Thornwell and other Southern Presbyterian divines as over against Charles Hodge of Princeton in the 1850's." -- Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, Vol. 2: 1861-1890, p. 414.

As Thompson goes on to relate, John Lafayette Girardeau summed up the Southern Presbyterian position well, historically known as jure divino Presbyterianism, or divine right Presbyterianism, as he laid it out in a sermon before the General Assembly of 1875: 

"There are two supreme obligations which this final charge of the Lord Jesus lays upon the  heart of the church. The first is the transcendent duty of universal evangelization. The second is the inculcation and maintenance of the truth which Christ, the prophet of the church, has taught, and the commands which Christ, the king of the church, has enjoined. The call of the gospel is to be addressed to all the sons of men, and when they accept it, and are gathered into the fold of the church, she is to teach them all things whatsoever Christ has commanded. There are obviously a positive and a negative aspect of this charge to the church, — positive, in that she is directed to teach all that Christ has commanded; negative, in that she is implicitly prohibited from teaching anything which He has not commanded. The negative duty is a necessary inference from the command which enforces the positive. Here, then, we have the principle tinctured with the blood of our Puritan, Covenanter and Huguenot forefathers — that what is not commanded, either explicitly or implicitly in the Scriptures, is prohibited to the  church. She can utter no new doctrine, make no new laws, ordain no new forms of government, and invent no new modes of worship. This is but a statement of a fundamental principle of Protestantism, contra-distinguishing it from Rationalism on the one hand and Romanism on the other, — that the Scriptures, as the word of Christ, are the complete and ultimate rule  of faith and duty. They are complete, since they furnish as perfect a provision for the spiritual, as does nature for the physical, wants of man, and, therefore, exclude every other rule as unnecessary and superfluous. They are ultimate because, being the word of God, they must pronounce infallibly and supremely upon all questions relating to religious faith and practice.  The duty of the church, consequently, to conform herself strictly to the divine word, and her guilt and danger in departing from it would seem to be transparently evident. But the clearest principles, through the blindness, fallibility, and perverseness of the human mind, frequently prove inoperative in actual experience; and the history of the church furnishes lamentable proof that the great, regulative truth of the completeness and supremacy of the Scriptures constitutes no exception to this remark. Because we are Protestants, and Presbyterian Protestants, because the doctrine of the perfection and ultimate authority of the word lies at the root of our system and is embodied in our standards, we are not, therefore, free from the peril attending the failure of the church to conform herself in all things to the revealed will of Christ, and her tendency to rely upon her own folly instead of His wisdom" ("The Discretionary Power of the Church," Sermons, p. 370-371).

The Presbyterian's Hand-Book of the Church

In 1861, the Rev. Joel Parker (1799-1873) collaborated with the Rev. Thomas Ralston Smith (1830-1903) to publish The Presbyterian's Hand-Book of the Church: For the Use of Members, Deacons, Elders, and Ministers. It is a valuable contribution to the church, useful even today. 

Overall, it is a guide to explain what Presbyterianism is, how Presbyterian congregations are planted, what duties are expected of church members, how families should strive to live, what are the duties and responsibilities of church officers, and what might be expected in church worship services. 

In particular, there are specific features of this handbook or manual that stand out: 

  • The guidance given on how churches planted is basic, but nevertheless, rare and appreciated; 
  • There is encouragement to build a congregational library, for the benefit of all; 
  • Specific recommendations are made for the building of a pastoral library;
  • Recommended prayers for the use of families and ministers are provided;
  • Encouragement is given to parents and pastors to catechize children, using both the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and Joel Parker's three-part Initiatory Catechism;
  • Much practical application is offered for church officers to perform their duties efficiently and wisely, with an emphasis on the importance of pastoral visitation, congregational harmony, and a spirit of prayerfulness, and; 
  • There is an overarching theme that the business of the church and the household is primarily aimed at the glory of God, the service and expansion of his kingdom, the saving of souls, and the love of the saints. 

    The practical wisdom brought to bear upon 19th-century readers is equally of value to 21st-century readers, whether you are a church member or a church officer. Download this work today, and take time to work through it. It will be a benefit to your soul. 

McGill's Church Government and Peck's Notes on Ecclesiology

Log College Press exists in part to preserve a digital archive of American Presbyterian works from the 18th and 19th century, and to propagate the knowledge of these works to the general public. These works have generally been forgotten by 21st century Presbyterians, and it is our hope that just as Puritan literature has enjoyed a revival over the past sixty years through Banner of Truth and other publishers, so Log College Press might serve to restore knowledge of the Presbyterian fathers from America.

To that end, if you are interested in studying the topic of Ecclesiology, I commend to you two works written toward the end of the 19th century, one by a Northerner, and one by a Southerner. A book we have highlighted previously, Alexander Taggert McGill's Church Government (written in 1888), compiled the lectures on the topic he gave at Princeton Theological Seminary. McGill had been called in 1854 to become the Professor of Pastoral Theology, Church Government, and Homiletics, and held this position for over forty years. Soon after McGill's book was published, Thomas Ephraim Peck wrote Notes on Ecclesiology (1892). McGill's book is much longer than Peck's (560 pages as compared to 212), and while both traverse similar terrain in the topic, Peck includes sections on church power and the relationship between the church and the state (specifically, church power as contrasted with civil power) that make his volume unique in its presentation. Both books are worth the time and effort spent to work through them. 

19th Century Presbyterian Ecclesiology

At Log College Press, we are beginning to develop topical pages on subjects of interest as addressed by our authors such as Biographies and Systematic Theologies. One particular page to highlight at present is our Ecclesiology page. 

Among the many writers who have written Presbyterian church government, or the offices of the church, or the boundaries of church authority, are Charles Hodge, Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, Thomas Smyth, and John Lafayette Girardeau. Among the topics considered are:

  • the place of ruling elders, and deacons;
  • what is Presbyterian law as defined by church courts?;
  • what are the duties of church members?;
  • where can one find a collection of church acts and deliverances?;
  • and, what exactly is Presbyterianism? 

Here one can begin to investigate the question of whether the baptism of Rome is valid; here one can read ecclesiastical catechisms by Alexander McLeod and Thomas Smyth; and here one can review Samuel Miller's series of three published works on the office of the ruling elder. Here one can study Alexander Taggart McGill's treatise on church government; and much more.

Have you bookmarked Log College Press yet? Take time to peruse this page, and return on occasion, as we hope to add many more relevant works. We are growing daily. Thank you for your interest, and may these resources be a blessing to you. 

What Are the Limits of Church Authority?

As we have noted before, few questions are more important than to understand the nature and limits of church power. How do we distinguish between circumstances of worship and prescribed elements? May the Church authorize ceremonies in worship not commanded in Scripture?

The answer is clear from the Westminster Assembly: "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in any thing contrary to his Word, or beside it in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commandments out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also" and "But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture" (Westminster Confession of Faith 20:2; 21:1).

On this topic, we have previously highlighted John Bailey Adger (1810-1899)'s 1884 article on "Church Power." He affirms: "Our doctrine, our discipline, our worship, are all divine and revealed things, to which the Church can add, from which she can take away, nothing. No more discretion has the Church in regulating those who compose her membership. She can make no new laws to bind their conscience. Neither contrary to, nor yet beside the Scripture, can she impose any new duties not imposed on men by the Word. On the other hand, she cannot make anything to be sinful which God himself has not forbidden. In fine, the Church has no lawmaking power, except as to circumstances of time and place, order and decency, which, from the nature of the case, Scripture could not regulate, and which must needs be left, and have therefore been left, to human discretion. All the power which the Church has about laws is declarative and ministerial. Her officers are servants of the Lord, and declare not their own will, but the Lord's, and that only as he makes it known in the Word, which is open to all men, and which every man is entitled to judge of and interpret for himself."

We would also bring your attention two additional works by John Lafayette Girardeau (1825-1898): 1) The Discretionary Power of the Church (a sermon preached in 1875, found in his Sermons, wherein he quotes James Henley Thornwell so profoundly; and 2) Individual Liberty and Church Authority, a sermon preached in 1889. 

These works help to clarify that ecclesiastical authority is ministerial and delegated, not authoritative in itself. Adger and Girardeau have correctly and helpfully exposited the nature and limits of church authority, limiting it to what God has authorized, and not going beyond that. Take time to study these works, and to address what a very important question that every Christian must face. 

More Resources on American Presbyterian Ecclesiology

In 1885-1886, Peyton Harrison Hoge (1858-1940), the nephew and biographer of Moses Drury Hoge (1818-1899) delivered three sermons on The Officers of a Presbyterian Congregation to his congregation at the First Presbyterian Church of Wilmington, North Carolina: 1) the minister of the word, as he himself entered into the pastoral office there; 2) the ruling elder, on the occasion of a ruling elder's ordination; and 3) the deacon, on the occasion of two deacons' ordinations. These sermons were assembled together for private circulation, and are now available for study at Log College Press. They demonstrate a solid understanding of the nature and functions of, and Biblical warrant for, these offices, although more could be said about the duties of a minister besides the primacy of faithfully preaching Christ and the whole counsel of God (e.g., pastoral visitation, etc.). 

In 1897, John Aspinwall Hodge (1831-1901), nephew of Charles Hodge (1797-1878), himself a very significant resource on American Presbyterian ecclesiology, is the author of What is Presbyterian as Defined by the Church Courts? (1884), a very comprehensive overview of Presbyterian church government in question-and-answer format that goes beyond the primary offices of the church to discuss such matters as assemblies, moderators, stated clerks, church elections, and much, much more; and The Ruling Elder at Work (1897), a practical guide for ruling elders and how they may best serve the congregation, the session, and the higher courts as well. 

We continue to add more works on American Presbyterian ecclesiology at Log College Press. Be sure to click on the author page links and download these volumes highlighted above for further study, and to check back again for more. 

Two "New" 19th Century Presbyterian Works on Ecclesiology Added to Log College Press

We are pleased to note that two additional works on Presbyterian eccclesiology have been recently added to Log College Press.

The first is by Alexander Taggart McGill (1807-1889): Church Government: A Treatise (1888), the product of four decades of seminary lectures on the major points of church government as affirmed by a 19th century Princeton Presbyterian (he taught at Columbia Seminary in South Carolina; served as Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government at Western Theological Seminary (now Pittsburgh Theological Seminary) in Allegheny, Pennsylvania; and as Professor of Pastoral Theology at Princeton Seminary). There is a wealth of material here to digest for those interested in studying Presbyterian church government. 

And second, Samuel Miles Hopkins, II (1813-1901), Manual of Church Polity (1878). He served as Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Polity at Auburn Theological Seminary. This too, is a volume rich in insights as to the workings of Presbyterian church government. Both of these works have much to say about the officers of the church, with discussion about many of the historical controversies that were the talk of the Presbyterian church in the late 19th century, including the role of ruling elders, the place of women in the church, innovations in worship, and more. 

Both of these men, incidentally, "collaborated" (along with Samuel Jennings Wilson (1828-1883)) in a work that appeared posthumously titled A Short History of American Presbyterianism From Its Foundations to the Reunion of 1869 (1903). 

Take time to read the table of contents of these works, and download them for further study. They represent a window into the study of church polity of late 19th century American Presbyterianism. 

The Ecclesiastical Catechisms of Alexander McLeod and Thomas Smyth

Most Presbyterians are familiar with the Westminster Shorter/Larger Catechisms, or the Heidelberg Catechism. But have you heard of Ecclesiastical Catechisms? At least two were written by Presbyterians in America in the 19th century: one by Alexander McLeod (1806) and one by Thomas Smyth (1843). These books present the doctrine of the church in question and answer format, so that God's people might more easily understand what the Scriptures teach about the institution that Jesus is building. McLeod and Smyth won't agree on everything (for instance, the number of offices Jesus has appointed in His church), so comparing and contrasting these two documents, written 40 years apart, will undoubtedly be an edifying and rewarding use of your time. 

What is the nature and limits of church power? Few questions are more important.

John Bailey Adger (1810-1899) gives a wonderfully full answer to this question in his article from the October 1874 number of the Southern Presbyterian Review, entitled, aptly, "Church Power." 

Christians need to take heed to Adger's counsels, so that we might learn to obey lawful authority, and resist tyranny. Read this article, and you will better understand what Presbyterian church government is all about. 

If you haven't read Stuart Robinson on the church yet, do it ASAP!

Stuart Robinson's book The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel is a rich treasure that needs to be more well known. Dr. Craig Troxel has edited a recent edition, but you can find a free PDF from the 19th century here

This quote shows what awaits you when you read Robinson:

It is set forth as a distinguishing feature of the purpose of redemption, that it is to save not merely myriads of men as individual men, but myriads of sinners, as composing a Mediatorial body, of which the Mediator shall be the head; a Mediatorial Kingdom, whose government shall be upon His shoulders forever; a Church, the Lamb's Bride, of which He shall be the Husband; a bride whose beautiful portrait was graven upon the palms of his hands, and whose walls were continually before him, when in the counsels of eternity he undertook her redemption.

The mission of Messiah, undertaken in the covenant of eternity, was not merely that of a
teaching Prophet and an atoning Priest, but of a ruling King as well. His work was not to enunciate simply a doctrine concerning God and man's relations to God, as some Socrates, for the founding of a school; nor even merely to atone for sinners as a ministering priest at the altar: it was, as the result of all, and the reward of all, to found a community, to organize a government, and administer therein as a perpetual king.

May the Lord grant His people to see the glories of the church as an essential element of the gospel plan of salvation!