May 30: The Preliminary Principles

A Foundation Often Overlooked

As noted in an early printing of the Form of Government for the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the “Preliminary Principles,” with the exception of the first sentence, were originally composed by the Synod of New York and Philadelphia, and prefixed to their Form of Government, as published by that body in 1788, “In that year, after arranging the plan on which the Presbyterian Church is now governed, the Synod was divided into four Synods, and gave place to the General Assembly, which met for the first time in 1789.” These principles are generally recognized as having been authored by the Rev. John Witherspoon.

At its formation, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) was careful to institute these same Principles at the forefront of its Book of Church Order. As noted in one recent PCA study:

“Since the 16th Century Protestant Reformation, there have been numerous Reformed denominations with varying forms of church polity — some more hierarchical and others more democratic. These eight principles were originally adopted by the first American General Assembly in 1789. Our American Presbyterian forefathers had come to America with fresh memories of the persecutions under the Act of Supremacy fostered by Henry VIII in England. They did not want to form a denomination that was governed “from the top down” but “from the bottom up.”

“In 1787, when the original four Synods agreed to have a General Assembly, they appointed a Committee to first draft a series of Preliminary Principles to be approved before the Book of Church Order was written. This Committee worked for a year and presented these eight Preliminary Principles to the meeting of the Synods in 1788. These Preliminary Principles were approved so that the denomination would not be hierarchical in its polity. They then appointed a committee to draft a Book of Church Order based on these eight Preliminary Principles. This Book of Church Order was adopted at the first American Presbyterian General Assembly in 1789.

“It is interesting to note that by 1973 …. after we had decided to separate from the PCUS and before the PCA was actually formed, we called our group THE CONTINUING CHURCH, meaning that we intended to organize a denomination continuing the polity that our American forefathers adopted in 1789 based on these eight principles.”
[excerpted from the Minutes of the 30th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America, page 111.]

It is also worth noting that the Presbyterian Church, U.S. [aka, Southern Presbyterian Church] did not incorporate the Preliminary Principles into itsConstitution. Technically, the Principles were part of the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States of America [1861-1865] and again, technically the Principles remained a part of the PCUS Constitution up until 1879, when the PCUS finally adopted the first edition of its own Book of Church Order. But as the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. moved slowly over the next fourteen years towards the approval of its first official Book of Church Order, the Preliminary Principles were excised, and were clearly not part of the PCUS Constitution after 1879. This fact is evidenced by the total absence of the Principles from any published edition of the PCUS Book of Church.

Thus, when the PCA was formed, it is striking to realize that the new Church was in effect reaching outside of its immediate tradition of the PCUS and by the incorporation of the Preliminary Principles was thereby claiming the larger tradition of American Presbyterianism. Or as the above statement indicated, “we intended to organize a denomination continuing the polity that our American forefathers adopted in 1789 based on these eight principles.”

Not surprisingly, both the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Bible Presbyterian Church retained the Preliminary Principles in their Constitutions, each denomination being comprised of pastors and congregations that had originally been a part of the old Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. As well, the Preliminary Principles remain a part of the PC(USA) Constitution to this day.  A chart comparing the various editions of the Preliminary Principles can be viewed here.

Among those Presbyterian denominations which do not have the Preliminary Principles as part of their legacy are those more closely part of the Scottish Covenanter heritage, namely the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARPC) and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America (RPCNA). Beyond that, to my knowledge neither are the Principles found among any of the so-called micro-denominations.

The Text of the Preliminary Principles (PCA edition, 2008):—

The Presbyterian Church in America, in setting forth the form of government founded upon and agreeable to the Word of God, reiterates the following great principles which have governed the formation of the plan:

1. God alone is Lord of the conscience and has left it free from any doctrines or commandments of men (a) which are in any respect contrary to the Word of God, or (b) which, in regard to matters of faith and worship, are not governed by the Word of God. Therefore, the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion are universal and inalienable. No religious constitution should be supported by the civil power further than may be necessary for protection and security equal and common to all others.

2. In perfect consistency with the above principle, every Christian Church, or union or association of particular churches, is entitled to declare the terms of admission into its communion and the qualifications of its ministers and members, as well as the whole system of its internal government which Christ has appointed. In the exercise of this right it may, notwithstanding, err in making the terms of communion either too lax or too narrow; yet even in this case, it does not infringe upon the liberty or the rights of others, but only makes an improper use of its own.

3. Our blessed Saviour, for the edification of the visible Church, which is His body, has appointed officers not only to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, but also to exercise discipline for the preservation both of truth and duty. It is incumbent upon these officers and upon the whole Church in whose name they act, to censure or cast out the erroneous and scandalous, observing in all cases the rules contained in the Word of God.

4. Godliness is founded on truth. A test of truth is its power to promote holiness according to our Saviour’s rule, “By their fruits ye shall know them” (Matthew 7:20). No opinion can be more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon the same level. On the contrary, there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.

5. While, under the conviction of the above principle, it is necessary to make effective provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith, there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good character and principles may differ. In all these it is the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.

6. Though the character, qualifications and authority of church officers are laid down in the Holy Scriptures, as well as the proper method of officer investiture, the power to elect persons to the exercise of authority in any particular society resides in that society.

7. All church power, whether exercised by the body in general, or by representation, is only ministerial and declarative since the Holy Scriptures are the only rule of faith and practice. No church judicatory may make laws to bind the conscience. All church courts may err through human frailty, yet it rests upon them to uphold the laws of Scripture though this obligation be lodged with fallible men.

8. If the preceding scriptural principles be steadfastly adhered to, the vigor and strictness of disciplines will contribute to the glory and well-being of the Church. Since ecclesiastical discipline derives its force only from the power and authority of Christ, the great Head of the Church Universal, it must be purely moral and spiritual in its nature.

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