May 2014

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Anyone who has been called into the ministry of the Word of God prays for a godly response in the hearts of the listeners. Certainly this was the desire of the Reformers in Scotland in the sixteenth century. To put away all things that dishonor His name was the prayer of those who entered into the sacred calling. But it didn’t always work out that way in practice.

knoxJohn04John Knox had returned to Scotland from Geneva Switzerland on May 2, 1559 (See that post on TDPH for a review). Beginning to preach the Reformed Faith to his fellow Scotsmen, John Knox had preached a thunderous sermon to the citizens of Perth, Scotland. The subject of his sermon exposed the idolatry of the Roman Church which included the worship of images.

Immediately following that message, a Roman Catholic priest unwisely attempted to serve mass. A young boy showed his displeasure at the attempt, for which he was struck by the priest. The boy retaliated by throwing a stone, which broke one of the images on the altar. Soon, the spectators of the altercation proceeded to favor the young boy’s action, by breaking all the images in the church. It turned into a riot when a mob proceeded to enter into all the Roman Catholic churches and even the monasteries, and lay them to ruins. Even John Knox, who tried to stop the unruly mob, referred to them as “a rascal multitude.”

Queen Mary of Guise, the queen regent, responded by calling forth her army, augmented by French troops in the area, and advanced to the city of Perth, threatening to lay waste the town and the citizens of it. The Protestant Lords of the congregation were able to assembly 25,000 soldiers to protect the Protestants. Obviously, a military showdown was about to take place. The queen regent, Mary, anxious to avoid such a showdown, entered then into an agreement that the town would be left open to the Queen, that none of its inhabitants would be interfered with, that the French troops would not enter the city, and that when the Queen would leave, there would be no garrison of troops left in the town.

All of these actions led to that which has been called the Second Covenant, signed and sealed on May 31, 1559. By this, those who signed the covenant resolved 1) to maintain their evangelical confederation; 2) to do all things required by God in the Scriptures; 3) to observe true worship; 4) to preserve the liberty of the Congregation and each member of it. These four points made up this Second Covenant, which was signed in the name of the whole Congregation, with the specific names of the Earls of Argyle and Glencairn, Lord James Stewart, Lord’s Boyd and Ochiltree, and Matthew Campbell. 

The Second Covenant was immediately put to the test as the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, turned her back on all of her promises to the Protestants. The battle for the soul of the nation was set to continue in the land.

Words to Live By:
It would be easy to resort to fleshly means to bring about the spiritual kingdom of God in a land. Our spiritual ancestors in Scotland were under a different standard as they sought to put away all things that dishonor His name. That is what this Second Covenant was all about on this day in 1559. Through godly prayer and spiritual works, as our Confessional Fathers put it, we are to destroy the kingdom of Satan, advance the kingdom of grace, and hasten the kingdom of glory.

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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 its Constitution. 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. To my knowledge, 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.

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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As the PCA meets for its 42d General Assembly this June 17-20, in Houston, the PCA Historical Center will sponsor its first ever Conference on Presbyterian History. [For more details on the Conference, see here or article #3, here]. Among those presenting papers at this conference, the Rev. Caleb Cangelosi will present his paper, “Congre-terians and Presby-gationals: Seeking the Sources of the 1801 Plan of Union” We hope you will be able to join us for the Conference, June 17th at 1 PM, meeting in Ballroom J of the Hilton Americas−Houston.

The Ends Don’t Justify the Means

The desires to grow increased members on the rolls can be dangerous in that questionable methods can be used to accomplish that end.   From the year of the first General Assembly in 1789, the church slowly grew from 419 churches to 511 in 1803. It is important to note that these increases did not come from proselytizing of members in other denominations.  As late as 1794, the General Assembly had approved a circular which discouraged “sheep stealing” from other denominations.:

But there was still a problem.  As the population shift in people continued to the west and south, there was a scarcity of pastors and congregations to reach the expanding growth.  Thus, the idea of some type of cooperation between churches was suggested at the General Assembly in 1800.  By the next year, and specifically on this day, May 29, 1801, this cooperation was given a name, that of the Plan of Union.  And it was to take place between the Presbyterians and the Congregationalist denominations.

The goal was admirable. For the purposes of not duplicating the work of either Presbyterian or Congregational ministers, Congregational mission churches or established churches could call a Presbyterian minister, and Presbyterian mission churches or established churches could call a Congregational minister.  Each could interchange to the other church with no problem.

As far as numerical growth was concerned, the Plan of Union worked admirably.  For thirty-five years, until 1837, the best statistics show that the numbers of churches went from 511 to 2,965 churches.  The number of ministers grew from 180 in number to 2, 140 clergy in 1837.  The church had increased eleven fold in barely four decades.

But at what cost doctrinally, was the question?  While there were some Congregational ministers who were Calvinistic in theology, others were influenced by liberal beliefs from New England with respect to sin and salvation.  Original sin was denied as well as the substitutionary satisfaction of Christ’s death on the cross for sinners.  Something had to be done if  Presbyterian government and doctrine was to continue.

In 1837, the Plan of Union was dissolved by the General Assembly, and particularly the Old School General Assembly,  having been declared “unnatural and unconstitutional.”  Entire synods, presbyteries, ministers, churches, and members were cut off from the Presbyterian church.  The Assembly was determined that purity came before growth in the order of importance.

Words to Live By: The ends, especially evangelistic ends, do not justify the means to those ends.  Rather, both ends and means must glorify God and be according to the Word of God.  Biblical ends must be justified by biblical means.

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Union of  Presbyterians

Ordinarily when you read of an event which brought together two separate bodies of Presbyterians, you would rejoice over the union.  But when you read of a conservative body of Presbyterians uniting with a liberal body of Presbyterians, one tends to be sad.  And yet the latter is what happened on this day, May 28, 1958 when the United Presbyterians Church of North America united with the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The new denomination arising from this union was named the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA).

We have in these historical devotionals spent enough time on the decline of testimony of the historic Christian faith which the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. has had since the early part of the last century. What you may not know is the history and  testimony of the United Presbyterian Church of North America.

It was almost to the day of this union in 1958 that two Scotch-Irish Presbyterians joined together in 1858 to make up the United Presbyterian Church of North America. Those two bodies which made up that union were the Seceders or Associate Presbyterians and the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. They had in the old country of Scotland left the Church of Scotland, and then immigrated over to what later became America. The latter Associate Reformed Presbyterians had come from a union of the Associate Presbytery and Reformed Presbytery in Pequea, Pennsylvania, on June 13, 1782 (see historical devotional for that date). The primary strength of membership lay in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.

What is even more important than these facts is to sum up their faith and life.  With their Scotch-Irish roots, they held to the Westminster Confession of Faith and catechisms as their subordinate standards, exclusive psalmody, Sabbatarianism, being a part of the abolitionist movement, and strong Protestantism. While the psalmody was abandoned in 1925, this church still held to a conservative Calvinism.

All this is then perplexing as to why they voted to merge into the liberal Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. almost one hundred years later in 1958.  In less than ten years, the wider body would replace the historic Westminster Standards with the Confession of 1967, relegating the former to a book of confessions.

Words to Live By: All of us need to carefully examine what we will gain and what will be lost in uniting together with others. Our associations matter. Not just who our friends are, but what we read, watch, and listen to, not to mention all the many social, religious and political groupings that we may be involved with, all these things bring influences that affect us far more than we may realize. Which is why prayerful, consistent time in the Word of God is so important, as a anchor against anything that might seek to sway and divert us away from honoring our Lord and Creator in all that we say and do.

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First General Assembly Writes George Washington

witherspoonJ_03Back on May 21, we wrote about the First General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church which met in Philadelphia in 1789.  It is interesting that part of their corporate decisions as a church was to send a letter on May 26, 1789 to President George Washington.  Its author of Dr. John Witherspoon, president of the College of New Jersey, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

After referring to President’s Washington military career and his unselfish surrender to the popular will of the people, it reads, “But we desire a presage even more flattering from the piety of your character. Public virtue is the most certain means of public felicity, and religion is the surest basis of virtue.  We therefore esteem it a peculiar happiness to behold in our chief magistrate a steady, uniform, avowed friend of the Christian religion; who has commenced his administration in rational and exalted sentiments of piety, and who in his private conduct adorns the doctrines of the gospel of Christ, and, on the most public and solemn occasions, devoutly acknowledges the government of Divine providence.

WashingtonGeorgeIt goes on to say “the example of distinguished characters will ever possess a powerful and extensive influence on the public mind; and when we see in such a conspicuous station the amiable example of piety to God, of benevolence to men, and of a pure and virtuous patriotism, we naturally hope that it will diffuse its influence, and that, eventually, the most happy consequences will result from it.  To the force of imitation we will  endeavor to add the wholesome instructions of religion.  We shall consider ourselves as doing an acceptable service to God, in our profession, when we contribute to render men sober, honest, and industrious citizens and the obedient subjects of a lawful government.  In these pious labors we hope to imitate the most worthy of our brethren from other Christian denominations, and to be imitated by them; assured that if we can, by mutual and generous emulation, promote truth and virtue, we shall render a great and important service to the republic, shall receive encouragement from every wise and good citizen, and above all, meet the approbation of our Divine Master.

In conclusion, the Assembly said, “we pray Almighty God to have you always in His holy keeping. May He prolong your valuable life, an ornament and a blessing to your country, and at last bestow on you the glorious reward of a faithful servant.”

The teaching and ruling elders of this first general assembly saw in the first president of this country a Christian president. And so they wrote him on this day at the same time the first Federal Congress was meeting.

Also on this date:
26 May 1858 — The United Presbyterian Church of North America(UPCNA) was formed by union of the northern aspect of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church with the Associate Presbyterian Church. Their union was formalized in an assembly held in the Old City Hall in Pittsburgh, 26 May 1858. A century later, the denomination concluded its existence in 1958 when it merged with the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. to form the United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., on 28 May 1958.

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