The “Preliminary Principles” form the introduction to the PCA’s Book of Church Order. The Principles have their origin with the PCUSA Constitution in 1789 and were also adopted into both the OPC and BPC Books of Church Order. The common opinion is that the Principles were authored by the Rev. John Witherspoon. What follows in our post today is a brief excerpt from the first installment in the series “Studies in Presbyterian Government,” by the Rev. David S. Kennedy, which is just about the only commentary I’ve ever seen that deals with the Preliminary Principles. Serving for many years as editor of The Presbyterian, Rev. Kennedy retired from that post in 1926. Rev. Kennedy’s series, “Studies in Presbyterian Government” appeared in serial form in the months following his retirement.
The Form of Government, like every worthy fundamental governmental document, starts out with a statement of Preliminary Principles. Introducing the Form of Government, there is a statement of eight distinct and necessary principles unanimously held by all who subscribe to the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church. It is our purpose in this article to set forth and discuss the first two of these principles. Principle I is as follows:
“God alone is Lord of the conscience; and hath left it free from the doctrine and commandments of men, which are in any way contrary to his Word, or ‘beside it in matters of faith or worship’; therefore they consider the rights of private judgment in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable; they do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and, at the same time, be equal and common to all others.”
We believe this Principle I, has been greatly misunderstood and misquoted. It plainly declares three relations pertaining to the individual’s freedom and obligation in religion:
(1) His relation to God;
(2) His relation to men, and
(3) His relation to the civil power.
In relation to God, the individual is wholly and vitally responsible to God and his Word. “God alone is Lord of the conscience.” A man then is not absolutely free to believe what he pleases. God has spoken, and every man is under obligation to obey him. Christ puts this with great emphasis when he says: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment. He that believeth not on the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abideth upon him.” The oft-repeated statement that a man is free and has a right to believe as he pleases is a most fearful and false statement when used in relation to God. With God, belief means life and justification, and unbelief means death and condemnation.
In relation to men, the individual is perfectly free. No man has the right or power according to this principle to tell another man what he must or should believe aside from the teachings of God’s Word or contrary to God’s Word. So far as man is concerned, each individual is free to follow his conscience and conviction of what is true.
Civil authority, in reference to the faith and religion of the individual, has no power save to protect the religious rights of the individual against any attempt to curtail his freedom and to protect the property and other rights of the denomination against the intrusion or misappropriation of the individual.