April 3: Liberty of Conscience

The penultimate paragraph in this brief essay provides an interesting contrasting argument when compared with the previously posted editorial by Dr. Samuel G. Craig.  Where Craig argued that the PCUSA was within its rights to prohibit membership in parachurch organizations, here Dr. Robinson correctly notes that earlier PCUSA examples contradict such a ruling.  On another subject, it might also be useful to compare Robinson’s essay with D.S. Kennedy’s comments in respect to the first of the Preliminary Principles.

Liberty of Conscience
By the Rev. Prof. William Childs Robinson, Th.D.
[Christianity Today 5.11 (April 1935): 261.]

God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to His word, or beside it, in matters of faith and worship.”

This teaching from the Confession has always been dear to Presbyterian hearts. It is rooted in Jesus’ statement, “But in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” Matt. 15:9. It echoes Calvin’s conviction that “it is necessary to destroy everything which diminishes the honor of God and to that end every rule except His Word.” It reiterates the famous sermon of Alexander Henderson to the memorable Scottish Assembly of 1638: “It is not obedience to follow the humours of men that go out of this line.”

The true interpretation of the words of the Confession may be seen by the petition which the Westminster Divines addressed to Parliament requesting the adoption of their book of discipline. This petition asserts that they do not ask for “an arbitrary or unlimited power: for how can that power be called arbitrary which is not according to the will of man, but the will of Christ; or how can it be supposed to be unlimited which is circumscribed and regulated by the exactest law?”

Dr. John Witherspoon experienced the rigors of arbitrary church government under the “moderates” of Scotland. Therefore, when he came to organize the American General Assembly, he wrote as its preliminary principles: “That all church power, whether exercised by the body in general, or in the way of representation by delegated authority, is only ministerial and declarative; that is to say, that the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and manners; that no church judicatory ought to pretend to make laws, to bind the conscience in virtue of their own authority; and that all their decisions should be founded upon the revealed will of God.” Further that the Church is to exercise censure by “observing in all cases the rules contained in the Word of God.” In entire accord with these principles which still form part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., our Southern Presbyterian Church has expressly defined an ecclesiastical offence as “anything in the principles or practice of a church member professing faith in Christ, which is contrary to the Word of God.”

The sense of each of these authorities is that Presbyterians regard that only as “an offence,” which is contrary to the teaching of God in His Word. And yet we have the anomalous situation in the Northern Presbyterian Church of Dr. Machen and other members of the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions being tried for violating the commandments of men. There is room for difference of opinion as to the wisdom or advisability of organizing this Board. Into that question the writer has no desire to go. But as the cited authorities show, those who have organized this Board have not been guilty of committing a Presbyterian offence. It has not been shown that they have acted contrary to the Word of God.

Just a little over a hundred years ago while the General Assembly was supporting the interdenominational American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, at least two independent boards were organized by Presbyterians. The Presbyterians of South Carolina and Georgia organized the Southern Board of Foreign Missions; while those of Virginia and Pennsylvania organized the Western Foreign Missionary Society. Not only were these Presbyterians never disciplined; but the last named was eventually taken over by the General Assembly and is now the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. Dr. Thornwell opposed the whole board system as without Scriptural warrant. Would he have been disciplined had he done what then Southern Church has since done, namely, organized an executive committee instead of a board?

Regardless of what one may think of the Independent Board, he can but regard the effort to discipline these men as an invasion of liberty of conscience.

[Robinson, William Childs, “Liberty of Conscience,” Christianity Today 5.11 (April 1935): 261.]

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