[By Alexander Campbell, with words emphasized in bold by Scott Shifferd Jr.]
HAD the founder of the Christian faith been defective in wisdom or benevolence, then his authority, his testimony, and his commandments, might be canvassed with as little ceremony as the discoveries and maxims of our compeers and contemporaries then his religion might be improved, or reformed, or better adapted to existing circumstances. But as all Christians admit that he foresaw and anticipated all the events and revolutions in human history, and that the present state of things was as present to his mind as the circumstances that encompassed him in Judea, or in the judgment hall of Caiaphas; that he had wisdom and understanding perfectly adequate to institute, arrange, and adapt a system of things, suitable to all exigencies and emergencies of men and things, and that his philanthropy was not only unparalleled in the annals of the world, but absolutely perfect, and necessarily leading to, and resulting in, that institution of religion which was most beneficial to man in the present and future world. I say all these things being generally, if not universally agreed upon by all Christians, then it follows, by the plainest and most certain consequence, that the institution of which he is the author and founder, can never be improved or reformed. The lives or conduct of his disciples may be reformed, but his religion cannot. The religion of Rome, or of England, or of Scotland may be reformed, but the religion of Jesus Christ never can. When we have found ourselves out of the way we may seek for the ancient paths, but we are not at liberty to invent paths for our own feet. We should return to the Lord.
But a restoration of the ancient order of things, it appears, is all that is contemplated by the wise disciples of the Lord; as it is agreed that this is all that is wanting to the perfection, happiness, and glory of the Christian community. To contribute to this is our most ardent desire–our daily and diligent inquiry and pursuit. Now, in attempting to accomplish this, it must be observed, that it belongs to every individual and to every congregation of individuals to discard from their faith and their practice every thing that is not found written in the New Testament of the Lord and Saviour, and to believe and practice whatever is there enjoined. This done, and every thing is done which ought to be done.
But to come to the things to be discarded, we observe that, in the ancient order of things, there were no creeds or compilations of doctrine in abstract terms, nor in other terms other than the terms adopted by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. Therefore all such are to be discarded. It is enough to prove that they ought to be discarded, from the fact that none of those now in use, nor ever at any time in use, existed in the apostolic age. But as many considerations are urged why they should he used, we shall briefly advert to these, and attempt to show that they are perfectly irrational, and consequently foolish and vain.
I. It is argued that confessions of faith are or may be much plainer and of much more easy apprehension and comprehension than the oracles of God. Men, then, are either wiser or more benevolent than God. If the truths in the Bible can be expressed more plainly by modern divines than they are by the Holy Spirit, then it follows that either God would not or could not express them in words so plainly as man. If he could, and would not, express them in words so suitable as men employ, then he is less benevolent than they. Again, if he would, but could not express them in words so suitable as men employ, then he is not so wise as they. These conclusions, we think, are plain and unavoidable. We shall thank any advocate of human creeds to attempt to show any way of escaping this dilemma.
But the abstract and metaphysical dogmas of the best creeds now extant, are the most difficult of apprehension and comprehension. They are farther from the comprehension of nine-tenths of mankind than the words employed by the Holy Spirit. We shall give a few samples from the Westminster creed, one of the best in the world:–
Sample 1. “The Father is of none, neither begotten nor proceeding; the Son is eternally begotten of the Father; the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son.”
Sample 2. “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet so as neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.”
Sample 3. “Although God knows whatsoever may or can come to pass, upon all supposed conditions; yet has he not decreed any thing because he foresaw it as future, or as that which would come to pass upon such conditions.”
Sample 4. “These angels and men, thus predestined and foreordained, are particularly and unchangeably designed, and their number is so certain and definite, that it cannot be either increased or diminished.”
Sample 5. “Although in relation to the knowledge and decree of God, the first cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, he orders them to fall out according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.”
These samples are taken out of the 2d, 3d, and 5th chapters, and may serve as a fair specimen of the whole. Now the question is, whether are these words more plainly, definitely, and intelligibly expressive of divine truths than the terms used by the Holy Spirit in the scriptures? We do not ask the question, whether these things are taught in the Bible? But merely whether these terms are more plain, definite, and intelligible than the terms used in the Bible? This we refer to the reader’s own decision.
II. But, in the second place, it is argued that human confessions of faith are necessary to the unity of the church. If they are necessary to the unity of the church, then the church cannot be united and one without them. But the church of Christ was united and one in all Judea, in the first age, without them; therefore, they are not necessary to the unity of the church. But again, if they are necessary to the unity of the church, then the New Testament is defective; for if the New Testament was sufficient to the unity of the church, then human creeds would not be necessary. If any man, therefore, contend that human creeds are necessary to the unity of the church, he at the same time and by all the same arguments, contends that the scriptures of the Holy Spirit are insufficient–that is, imperfect or defective. Every human creed is based upon the inadequacy, that is, the imperfection of the Holy Scriptures.
But the records of all religious sects, and the experience of all men of observation, concur in attesting the fact that human creeds have contributed always, since their first introduction, to divide and disunite the professors of the Christian religion.
Every attempt to found the unity of the church upon the adoption of any creed of human device, is not only incompatible with the nature and circumstances of mankind, but is an effort to frustrate or to defeat the prayer of the Lord Messiah, and to subvert his throne and government. This sentence demands some attention. We shall illustrate and establish the truth which it asserts.
Human creeds are composed of the inferences of the human understanding speculating upon the revelation of God. Such are all those now extant. The inferences drawn by the human understanding partake of all the defects of that understanding. Thus we often observe two men sincerely exercising their mental powers, upon the same words of inspiration, drawing inferences or conclusions, not only diverse but flatly contradictory. This is the result of a variety of circumstances. The prejudices of education, habits of thinking, modes of reasoning, different degrees of information, the influence of a variety of passions and interests, and, above all, the different degrees of strength of human intellect, all concur in producing this result. The persons themselves are very often unconscious of the operation of all these circumstances, and are, therefore, honestly and sincerely zealous in believing and in maintaining the truth of their respective conclusions. These conclusions, then, are always private property, and can never be placed upon a level with the inspired word. Subscription to them, or an acknowledgment of them, can never be rationally required as a bond of union. If, indeed, all Christians were alike in all those circumstantial differences already mentioned, then an accordance in all the conclusions which one or more of them might draw from the divine volume, might rationally be expected from them all. But as Christians have never yet all possessed the same prejudices, degrees of information, passions, interests, modes of thinking and reasoning, and the same strength of understanding, an attempt to associate them under the banners of a human creed composed of human inferences, and requiring unanimity in the adoption of it, is every way as irrational as to make a uniformity of features, of color, of height and weight, a bond of union. A society of this kind never yet existed, and we may, I think, safely affirm never will. Those societies which unite upon the thirty-nine articles of the Church of England, and the thirty-three chapters of the Kirk of Scotland, do not heartily concur in those creeds. Most of them never read them, and still fewer heartily concur in yielding the same credence, or in reposing the same confidence in them.
Their being held as a nominal bond of union, gives rise to hypocrisy, prevarication, lying, and, in many instances, to the basest injustice. Many men are retained in those communities who are known not to approbate them fully, to have exceptions and objections; but their wealth or some extrinsic circumstance palliates their non-conformities in opinion; whereas others are reproached, persecuted and expelled, who differ no more than they, but there is some interest to consult, some pique, or resentment, or envy to gratify in their excommunication. This is base injustice. Many, like the late Rev. Dr. Scott, subscribe them for preferment. He declared that he was moved by the Holy Spirit to enter into the ministry, and yet he afterwards avowed that then he did not believe that there was any Holy Spirit. This is lying and hypocrisy. These are, however, incidental occurrences. But the number of such cases, and the frequency of their occurrence, are alarming to those who believe that God reigns. Again, the number of items which enter into those creeds is not amongst the least of their absurdities. In the Presbyterian Confession there are thirty-three chapters, and in these one hundred and seventy-one dogmas. In receiving “ministers,” or in “licensing preachers,” it is ordained that the candidate be asked, “Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith of this church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures.” Observe the words, “the system.” Yes, the identical system taught in the Scriptures–that is the one hundred and seventy-one dogmas of the Confession is the system of truth taught in the Holy Scriptures. Neither more nor less! But I am digressing. I only proposed in this place to show that the imposition of any creed of human device is incompatible with the nature and circumstances of man. This, I conceive, is rendered sufficiently plain from an inspection of the circumstances and character of the human mind already noticed.
But it was affirmed, that every attempt to found the unity of the church upon the adoption of any creed of human contrivances;–upon any creed, other than the apostle’s testimony, is not only incompatible with the nature and circumstances of mankind, but is also an effort to frustrate and defeat the prayer and plan of the Lord Messiah, and to subvert his throne and government.
It will be confessed, without argument to prove, that the conversion of men, or of the world, and the unity, purity, and happiness of the disciples of the Messiah, were the sublime subjects of his humiliation to death. For this he prayed in language never heard on earth before, in words which not only expressed the ardency of his desires, but at the same time unfolded the plan in which his benevolence and philanthropy were to be triumphant.
The words to which we refer express one petition of that prayer recorded by the apostle John, commonly styled his intercessory prayer. With his eyes raised to heaven, he says;–“Holy Father–now, I do not pray for these only (for the unity and success of the apostles) but for those also who shall believe in me through, or by means of their word–that they all may be one,–that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Who does not see in this petition, that the words or testimony of the apostles, the unity of the disciples, and the conviction of the world are bound together by the wisdom and the love of the Father, by the devotion and philanthropy of the Son. The order of heaven, the plan of the Great King, his throne and government, are here unfolded in full splendor to our view. The words of the apostles are laid as the basis, the unity of the disciples the glorious result, and the only successful means of converting the world to the acknowledgment, that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah or the Son of the Blessed, the only Saviour of men.
Let us attend to the argument of the prayer. The will of Jesus was the same as the will of him who sent him. The will of heaven, that is, the will of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is, that all who believe on the Messiah through the testimony of the apostles may be one; consequently, they do not will that those who believe on him through the Westminster divines shall be one. The words of the prayer alone demonstrate this. And who does not see, and who will not confess, that the fact proves, the fact now existing, that those who believe in him through the words of the Westminster divines are not one? They are cut up or divided into seven sects at this moment. While the Saviour prays that those who believe on him through the apostles may be one, he in fact, and in the plain meaning of terms, prays that they who believe on him through any other media or means may be divided, and not be one.
To attempt to unite the professing disciples by any other means than the word of the apostles, by the Westminster, or any other creed, is, then, an attempt to overrule the will of heaven, to subvert the throne of the Great King, to frustrate the prayers of the Son of the Blessed. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are God’s thoughts and ways higher than ours. He knows, for he has willed, and planned, and determined, that neither the Popish, the Protestant, the Presbyterian, the Methodistic, nor the Baptist creed shall be honored more than the apostle’s testimony, shall be honored as much as the apostle’s testimony, shall be honored at all. These creeds the Saviour proscribed forever; they are rebellion against his plan and throne, and they are aimed at the dethronement of the Holy Twelve–He put them on thrones, he gave them this honor. All creed makers have disputed their right to the throne, have attempted, ipso facto, their degradation, and have usurped their government. But he that sits in heaven has laughed at them, he has vexed them in his sore displeasure, he has dispersed them in his anger, and confounded their language as he did their predecessors, who sought to subvert his throne and dominion by the erection of a tower and citadel reaching to the skies. The votaries of those creed makers have also concurred with their masters, and have attempted to raise them upon their shoulders to the apostolic thrones; but he has broken their necks, and they go bowed down always. He has made them lick the dust, and caused children to reign over them.
But the conversion of the world is planned and ordered by the will of heaven to be dependant on the unity of the disciples, as well as this unity dependant upon the apostle’s testimony. An attempt to convert Pagans and Mahometans to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and the sent of the Father, until Christians are united, is also an attempt to frustrate the prayer of the Messiah, to subvert his throne and government. There are unalterable laws in the moral world, as in the natural. There are also unalterable laws in the government of the moral and religious world, as in the government of the natural. Those laws cannot, by human interference, be set aside or frustrated–we might as reasonably expect that Indian corn will grow in the open fields in the midst of the frost and snows of winter, as that Pagan nations can be converted to Jesus Christ, till Christians are united through the belief of the apostle’s testimony. We may force corn to grow by artificial means in the depth of winter, but it is not like the corn of August. So may a few disciples be made in Pagan lands by such means in the moral empire; as those by which corn is made to grow in winter in the natural empire, but they are not like the disciples of primitive times, before sectarian creeds came into being. It is enough to say, on this topic, that the Saviour made the unity of the disciples essential to the conviction of the world; and he that attempts it independent of this essential, sets himself against the wisdom and plans of heaven, and aims at overruling the dominion and government of the Great King. On this subject we have many things to say, and hard to be uttered, because the people are dull of hearing. But we shall leave this prayer for the present, having just introduced it, and noticed the argument of it, by reminding the reader that instead of human creeds, promoting the unity of the disciples, they have always operated just the reverse; and are in diametrical opposition to the wisdom and benevolence of the Heavens. Should the Christian community be united upon the Westminster, or Methodistic, or Baptist, or any human creed, then the plan of heaven is defeated, the apostles disgraced, the Saviour’s prayer unanswered, and the whole order of heaven frustrated, and the throne of the universe subverted. He that advocates the necessity of creeds of human contrivance to the unity of the church unconsciously impeaches the wisdom of God, arraigns the benevolence of the Saviour, and censures the revelation of the Spirit. He, perhaps, without reflection attempts to new modify the empire of reason, of morality and religion; to rise above, not only the apostles, but the Saviour himself, and arrogates to himself a wisdom and philanthropy that far surpasses, and in fact covers with disgrace, all those attributes that rise to our view, and shine with incomparable effulgence in the redemption of man.