« PreviousContinue »
the Congregational Library, though there were scholars and theologians among them, were for the most part popular preachers, children of the Revival ; the early education of some of them had been imperfect ; very few of them had had the leisure for deep research ; very few of them had been disciplined to severe accuracy of thought. They cared very little for the subtleties and refinements which had divided Protestant theologians. They were anxious about the substance of Christian truth; they were indifferent-perhaps too indifferent to the intellectual forms in which it was expressed. The Savoy Declaration was described by the secretaries of the Congregational Union as “almost obsolete,” as“ most orthodox," but" too wordy and too much extended, for the purpose " which the new Declaration was intended to accomplish.20 The differences between the earlier and the later Confessions are partly explained by the differences in intellectual cultivation and intellectual habits which separated the Congregationalists of the seventeenth century from the Congregationalists of the nineteenth.
But only partly. For two generations the Congregational Churches had been gradually drifting away from their traditional Calvinism.
Among the ministers who were present in the Congregational Library when the Declaration was adopted, there were some who
could not be called Calvinists in any proper sense of the designation. Rather, they approached the Arminian standpoint." It is probable that a still larger numberperhaps the majority-supposed that they were Calvinists, but had admitted into their creed beliefs which were inconsistent with the fundamental assumptions and characteristic conclusions of Calvinism. They had not consciously and frankly rejected the theology of their ecclesiastical ancestors, but it was no longer the accurate expression of their true faith. When they approached the critical articles of the system they were ill at ease. They clung to the substance of the old faith, but the traditional and authoritative definitions seemed too hard and uncompromising : they thought it possible to express the same truth in a form more tolerable by expressing it more vaguely. They did not know that their Calvinism
20 Congregational Magazine, 1832, 442.
was decaying, and that as yet they had found no other system that satisfied them.
There were some vigilant theologians, like Richard Winter Hamilton, of Leeds, who saw clearly the drift of Congregational thought. “I am no accuser," he said, “but I do fear that there is creeping among us a refining method as to the great propoundings of the gospel. The full-blooded dogma of the old school must be revived. . . . Our Congregational Union symbol of faith is to me unsatisfactory and lamentable.” 22 Hamilton was a man of singularly vigorous intellect, a great wit, an excellent classical scholar, and a learned dogmatic theologian. With a style which sometimes became Asiatic in its ostentatious glitter and splendour, he had a masculine understanding, and was very impatient of vagueness of doctrinal thought and doctrinal statement; and he saw that many of the articles of the Declaration were intentionally vague. They were meant to be Trinitarian, but they wanted the firmness and courage of genuine Athanasianism ; a Sabellian who was not too scrupulous might accept them without difficulty. They were meant to be Calvinistic ; but the Calvinism was timid, almost apologetic, as if there had been an anxiety on the part of the Union not to provoke Arminian hostility.23 And this want of theological precision in the Declaration accurately represents the mind of the English Congregational Churches
22 Letter to Algernon Wells, quoted by Dr. Stoughton, Reminiscences of Congregationalism, 53.
23 The halting English of Article XIV. probably resulted from the want of firmness and decision in the theology of the revising committee. “They believe that all who will be saved were the objects of God's eternal and electing love, and were given by an act of divine sovereignty to the Son of God ; which in no way interferes with the system of means, nor with the grounds of human responsibility ; being wholly unrevealed as to its objects, and not a rule of human duty.” Declaration, 7. Why the revision committee gave the article this form, or what it means, is not very apparent. Dr. Redford had written it differently :-" They believe that all who will be finally saved were the objects of God's eternal and electing love, and were given by an act of divine sovereignty to the Son of God; but that this act of sovereignty in no way interferes with the system of means, nor with the grounds of human responsibility, being wholly unrevealed as to its objects, and therefore incapable of becoming a rule of human duty." Principles of Religion, xiv. ; Congregational Magazine, 1832, 444.
Another instructive illustration of the great change which had passed upon Congregational theology since the Commonwealth, is to be found in the article on Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The Savoy Congregationalists had adopted, with some modifications, the three definitions of the “ Sacraments," “ Baptism,” and “the Lord's Supper," drawn up by the Westminster Assembly. These definitions contain an elaborate theory of the nature and power of the Christian Sacraments, and express the conclusions at which Calvinistic theologians had arrived as the result of protracted controversies with Romanists and Zwinglians. The article in the Declaration of 1833 is very brief. It reads
“They believe in the perpetual obligation of Baptism and the Lord's Supper ; the former to be administered to all converts to Christianity and their children, by the application of water to the subject, ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost'; and the latter to be celebrated by Christian Churches as a token of faith in the Saviour, and of brotherly love." 24
The Calvinistic conception of the two Sacraments which had been held by Robert Browne and all the earlier Congregationalists, by John Owen and the great Congregationalists of the Commonwealth, had been abandoned ; and no other definite theory had taken its place.
The elder Congregationalists believed—to quote the words of the Savoy Declaration—that
"Baptism is a Sacrament of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ to be unto the party baptized a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace; of his ingraffing into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God through Jesus Christ to walk in newness of life. . . . The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered, yet notwithstanding, by the right use of this Ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Ghost to such (whether of age, or Infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own Will in his appointed time.” 25
24 Principles of Religion, xviii. ; Declaration, 8.
They saw that their conception of the Sacrament might easily be perverted into the coarse, mechanical conception of it which was prevalent in the Roman Church and the English Church, and they therefore inserted the following caution :
“Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect this Ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it, as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it; or that all that are baptized, are undoubtedly regenerated." 26
That they should have thought it necessary to insert this caution is a decisive proof of the objective value which they attributed to the Sacrament.
The Declaration of 1833 makes no attempt to explain the meaning of baptism ; it does nothing more than define its subjects—“converts to Christianity and their children”; its mode—“ by the application of water to the subject in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost'"; and its“ perpetual obligation." 27
Its account of the Lord's Supper is, if possible, still more unsatisfactory. It affirms a theory of the rite which leaves absolutely nothing in it but the expression of the subjective religious life of those who take part in it; it is “ to be celebrated by Christian Churches as a token of faith in the Saviour, and of brotherly love.” This is to make it nothing more than the signing of a Confession of Faith, and the singing of a hymn containing expressions of love for the saints. The characteristic idea of a sacrament as a revelation of Christ in a symbolic act, is wholly lost.28
The Savoy Declaration, on the other hand, gives this account of Sacraments in general :
“I. Sacraments are holy Signs and Seals of the Covenant of Grace, immediately instituted by Christ to represent him and his benefits, 29 and to confirm our interest in him, and solemnly to engage us to the service of God in Christ according to his Word.
26 Declaration of the Faith and Order, etc., chap. xxix., 20
27 Principles of Religion, xviii. ; Declaration, 8. For a statement of a theory of baptism which is probably now held by a considerable number of Congregationalists, see the chapter on the Christian Sacraments in R. W. Dale, Manual of Congregational Principles, 126-141.
28 Ibid., xviii. ; ibid., 8.
“ II. There is in every Sacrament a spiritual relation, or sacramental so union between the sign and the thing signified; whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other.
“III. The grace which is exhibited in or by the Sacraments rightly used, is not confined by any power in them, neither doth the efficacy of a Sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it, but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of Institution, which contains together with a Precept authorising the use thereof, a Promise of benefit to worthy receivers." 33
Of the Lord's Supper the Savoy theologians declare that
“I. Our Lord Jesus in the night wherein he was betrayed, instituted the Sacrament of his Body and Blood, called the Lord's Supper, to be observed in his Churches unto the end of the world[Why ? As a token of our faith in the Saviour and of our love for each other? No; but]-for the perpetual remembrance, and shewing forth of the Sacrifice of himself in his death, the sealing of all benefits thereof unto true believers, their spiritual nourishment, and growth in him, their further engagement in and to all duties which they owe unto him, and to be a bond and pledge of their communion with him and with each other."
“VII. Worthy Receivers outwardly partaking of the visible Elements in this Sacrament, do then also inwardly by Faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally, but spiritually, receive and feed upon Christ crucified, and all benefits of his death; the Body and Blood of Christ being then not corporally or carnally in, with, or under the Bread or Wine ; yet as really, but spiritually present to the Faith of Believers in that Ordinance, as the Elements themselves are to their outward senses.” 34
The transition from the doctrine of the Sacraments contained in the Savoy Declaration to the doctrine of the Declaration of 1833 had been gradual. Early in the present century the traditional theory of the objective element in the Sacraments still survived, but the subjective theory of their
30 Hanbury, Historical Memorials, iii. 543, has "fundamental " for “sacramental”. -an obvious misprint, as
is not only in the original here, but also in the corresponding passage of the Westminster Confession.
31 But there is grace confessed ; and to “ exhibit does not mean merely to “ show," but to “ administer or “ impart."
32 But there is efficacy, of which the Declaration of 1833 says nothing
33 Declaration of the Faith and Order, etc., chap. xxviii., 19. 34 Ibid., chap. XXX., 20-21.