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every well informed, discriminating divine, who can as clearly distinguish the prime, constituent, essential principles of each religious system from points of minor consequence, as the philosopher can distinguish the prime, essential principles of the Newtonian system, from those points, which may be determined either way without affecting the system.
The length of these remarks will need no apology, when the object is duly attended to. We are willing to seize this opportunity to show the propriety, the fairness, and the honesty of expressing our assent to the Catechism in the manner above mentioned; and thus to remove a principal objection, in the mind of our corre ondent and some others, against the General Association. If this plan of subscription be liable to abuse, and leave the door open for imposition; the fault may not be charged against the plan itself, but against the deceit and wickedness of the human heart. Although we would surround Zion with as many safeguards as possible; yet it would be romantic to expect, that we can divest erroneous and dishonest men of all power to practise imposition, and introduce disorder and mischief. It is sufficient for our present purpose, if we can make it clearly appear, that the scheme we are defending is calculated to promote the union, the improvement, and the influence of orthodox and pious ministers, and through them the welfare of the churches.
But J. has further objections. "If those gentlemen, who are most engaged to promote the
General Association, could themselves subscribe to the literal and obvious meaning of the Catechism; yet, as the avowed object is to bring together in one harmonious body, persons fundamentally right, though some of them may be partially incorrect, it would still be a matter of extreme difficulty to determine how great a latitude might be allowable; how different a person's opinion might be from the literal import of the language, and yet subscribe that language with a good conscience." Would our correspondent call in question the importance of general rules? Or would he consider the difficulty, in certain cases, of applying those rules, as overbalancing the immense good, which they produce? The extreme difficulty abovementioned is found, in most cases, where general rules are concerned. Instances might easily be multiplied, were it necessary. The caution and timidity of our correspondent might lead to consequences of which he is not aware.
Here, again, we have proceeded upon the candid concession, that J. has not overrated the difficulty under consideration. But it might, with good reason, be argued, that the difficulty will, in all probability, occur very rarely, and when it does occur, will be so inconsiderable, as to deserve little serious regard. Take into view those ministers of the gospel in Massachusetts, who cordially embrace and firmly support the doctrines of the reformation; in other words, those who are thoroughly orthodox, according to the usual meaning of that term. How many of them would have any difficulty
in expressing their assent to the doctrines of Christianity, as they are generally contained in the Assembly's Shorter Catechism? Who of them would ever find occasion to make it a serious question, "how far their opinion may be from the literal import of the language, and yet they be able to subscribe that language with a good conscience ?” Does not the language of the Catechism in its "literal import" unfold that great system of gospel truth, in which all of the above description agree? And what difficulty can they have about the latitude allowable For however they may differ in their modes of conception and explanation on certain points; they can have no difficulty in receiving "the principles of Christianity, as they are generally expressed in the Catechism." They may have other objections to joining the General Association; but they certainly can on account of the faith required? The plan was never meant to be so liberal, as to include those, to whom the rule of admission is an offence.
But our correspondent does not stop at possible or supposeable cases. He pleads what he considers a certain fact, as an objection to the proposed plan. "Nothing, (he says) can be more certain, than that many gentlemen, who most warmly advocate the measure, must subscribe to the Catechism, if they subscribe at all, in a sense very different from what the language imports." He has made the most of this objection. And yet what is the amount? Let us attend to his three cases, two of which relate to the same subject, and may properly be reduced to one.
The first case is stated in these words: "The Catechism asserts, that the covenant being made with Adam, &c. all mankind sinned in him and fell with him in his first transgression. Now it is the belief of many persons engaged to promote the contemplated coalition, not that the posterity of Adam either sinned in him or fell with him, but are answerable for their actual transgressions and those only."
It is but just to remind our readers, that the gentlemen here designed, as well as Calvinists in general, believe that God, in his sovereign wisdom, constituted a moral connexion between Adam and his posterity, so that his disobedience was the sure occasion of their sin and ruin, while his persevering obedience would have been followed by their holiness and felicity. They fully admit the propriety of the expression, that "all mankind sinned in him and fell with him," in its plain, scriptural sense, which, in their opinion, is obviously a figurative sense. It is similar to the apostle's expression, as in Adam all die;" which, according to their ideas, cannot be taken literally; for men cannot die before they live; but must be understood, as teaching in strong, figurative language, that their death takes place as a certain consequence of their relation to Adam, their representative and head; or, to express it differently, that they die in Adam, as, in him, a foundation was laid for their death, or as his disobedience involved their death, as a sure effect. The clergymen, above referred to, think the passage just cited from the Catechism must be understood in
the same obvious and consistent sense. Our correspondent must, upon due reflection, perceive, that whatever difficulty there may be in his mind on this subject, there can be none in theirs. And we cannot omit this opportunity of declaring our warmest approbation of his own rule," not to magnify points of disagreement." It is our decided opinion, that if all the Congregational ministers in this State, who hold the doctrines of grace, would fully explain to each other their own sentiments on this point, they would find no disagreement sufficient to prevent their subscribing the same creed, or their acting together, as brethren, in the most harmonious
The next case, which our correspondent introduces, relates to the following declaration of the Catechism; viz. "the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell, consists in the guilt of Adam's first sin, the want of original righteousness, &c." On this J. observes; "the corruption of man's nature is indeed acknowledged by the gentlemen, of whom we are speaking; but they do not believe, that the sinfulness of man's fallen estate consists in the guilt of Adam's sin. Of course, when they subscribe to this article, it must be with very great latitude."
On this passage of the Catechism, taking the words in their plain and literal import, we shall not contradict our correspondent. If instead of saying, "the sinfulness of man's fallen estate consists in the guilt of Adam's first sin," it had been said, that it flows from it, as a consequence, or was occasioned by it,
many would have thought it more correct. Ministers of the gospel in this State would generally find a difficulty in subscribing a Catechism containing this one particular phrase, without some such provision, as the rules of the General Association have made. But with that provision, the most upright conscience can find no difficulty.
The third case of supposed embarrassment remains.
"It is the opinion of many, who advocate the measure proposed, that the divine efficiency is as necessary to produce evil, as good; that Adam no more sinned by his own strength, than the sinner repents and turns to God by his own strength; that it was as much a divine power, which produced an evil heart in Adam, as it is a divine power, which produces a good heart in the regenerate. Why should these persons be required to subscribe such a sentence as this? Our first parents being left to the freedom of their own will, fell from the estate wherein they were created, by sinning against God. Surely, they would not think it correct to say, that the sinner, being left to the freedom of his own will, turns from the state in which he was created, by repentance towards God," &c.
How happy would it be for the cause of religion, if Christians exercised more justice and candour, than they commonly do, in representing each other's sentiments on controverted subjects. The gentlemen designed, in the paragraph above quoted, will doubtless say, that this is an incorrect statement of their theory, calculated to make a wrong impression, and to excite
groundless prejudice. It would be easy for them to inform the objector, that they are as much concerned as he is, to secure the divine character and human agency; that they admit no divine efficiency, which does not consist with man's exercising the most perfect freedom, or acting according to his own will; and, therefore, that they are not embarrassed with the difficulties, which he supposes must embarrass them, not considering those difficulties as belonging either to their system, or to the passage of the Catechism above quoted.
It would be both needless and impertinent for the Editors to discuss the controverted, metaphysical question respecting the divine efficiency. Our only object is to show, that the question has no relation to the plan of the General Association. It was always designed, that the plan should be such, as to embrace those, who speculate differently on that question. We regret that our correspondent ever thought of deriving an objection from this topic.
But he proceeds, "If one person subscribe with such latitude, why may not another? What union then will subscription produce?" We never supposed that merely subscribing a creed had any efficacy to produce union of sentiment. Subscribing is not, properly speaking, designed to produce union, where it does not exist, but to express it, where it does exist. Still we consider it a measure, which, in connexion with other things, may lead on to a greater and greater degree of union. When pious ministers, who agree in the doctrines of the reformation, or in the funda
mental principles of the gospel, freely declare that agreement to each other, and their mutual desire thus far to walk together; when, in addition to this, they frequently meet in order to discuss, in a friendly, candid manner, those points on which their views are somewhat various, to consult for the general interest of religion, and to unite in fervent prayer; we have the greatest reason to indulge the hope, that a union more complete in itself, more happy to them, and more beneficial to religion, will ensue.
"It is well known, (says J.) that subscription to the Bible does not produce union of sentiment." But, if men were fair and honest, such subscription would presuppose, or express union. Yet, as things are, it neither presupposes, nor expresses union; because men are so inconsistent, as to profess their belief of the Bible, while they do not believe its contents. When "Trinitarians, Calvinists, Arminians, and Unitarians subscribe the Bible," there must be great error or dishonesty somewhere, or else the Bible is, of all books, the most unintelligible and contradictory. J. says, "they understand the Bible differently." This, though a well known fact, is not the root of the evil. But, contrary to his intention, this fact clearly shows the importance and necessity of explaining the Bible in confessions of faith, or in some other way, as the only satisfactory method of making known our own religious sentiments, and ascertaining those of others, and thus of being able to act with propriety in various cases, where the cause of truth is deeply concerned,
"Is it not clearly absurd, (says J.) to speak of an union to be produced by subscription to a confession, if it be understood, in the outset, that we may subscribe in what sense we please." If this be understood, the absurdity is granted. There is no end to suppositions. When it is evident, that they do not accord with the truth, they may properly be passed without notice.
What J. says about "the substance of the Catechism" does not pertain to the subject, as the expression is not used in the rule of General Association referred to. If "the substance of the Catechism" mean any thing different from "the doctrines of Christianity, as they are generally expressed in the Catechism," we have nothing to do with the phrase.
If it mean the same, it has already been attended to. Nor do we think it necessary to make many remarks on J's supposition," that some might subscribe, though Unitarians." If men will entirely renounce that system of religion, which is commonly called orthodox, and yet subscribe a Catechism containing that system; where is conscience? Where is honesty? But he says, "others would think they ought not to subscribe, if, in their apprehension, it contained the least error." And so And so ought all to think, if the intended subscription implied, that the subscribers profess to receive the Catechism, as an infallible and perfect standard, and to embrace every particular idea which it contains. But this is not implied.
J's observations on the theological character of many, who subscribe the xxxix articles, are
undoubtedly just. But the fact stated proves the fault, not of the xxxix articles, nor of the practice of subscribing, but of human nature. It shows how strangely men may be influenced, even in religious concerns, by worldly considerations, and how many, who are invested with the sacred office, are defective in moral character. But it ought to be recollected that, in this respect, the difference between England and America is very great. Here, no religion is established by law, and no civil advantage is connected with subscribing. Here, such perfect liberty of conscience is enjoyed, and so inconsiderable is the influence of prescription, or of any system or opinion, that men can have very little inducement to subscribe, except real conviction, and serious regard to the interest of religion.
The state of things in Scotland might open the door for similar observations. But it is unnecessary to repeat.
"Surely," says J. " those, who feel most interest in this coalition, do not design, like king James I. to prevent the discussion of those points in theology, which are most often disputed." What reason could our correspondent have for this passage, containing such an uncandid implication, when it has been expressly and often stated, as one object of the coalition, freely to discuss points of difference?
His hypothesis respecting two ministers, one of whom holds the sentiments of Dr. Hopkins, and the other, the sentiments of Dr. Doddridge, and respecting the difficulties, which would attend their ministerial inter