I have looked for a long time trying to find some commentary on the Preliminary Principles. There are a few sparse paragraphs in J. A. Hodge’s class What Is Presbyterian Law? But otherwise, it was difficult to locate anything, until I ran across a series of articles that appeared in The Presbyterian, an old Philadelphia journal that was a mainstay for conservative Presbyterians up until about 1929 and the time of the reorganization of Princeton Seminary.
The Preliminary Principles were authored by John Witherspoon in 1788, in preparation for the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America. The Principles technically remain a part of the constitution of the PC(USA) to this day, though they are sequestered into a section of “historical foundations”. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church also adopted the Preliminary Principles into its constitution (1936), as did the Presbyterian Church in America in 1973. The OPC was coming out of the PCUSA, so it was understandable that they would include the Principles. But the PCA was formed by churches leaving the old Presbyterian Church, U.S. (aka, Southern), and interestingly, the Southern Presbyterians did not see fit to include the Principles as part of their constitution when they adopted their Book of Church Order in 1879.
But to get to the matter, presented here is the first part of Studies in Presbyterian Government, by David S. Kennedy. More about him in preface to some subsequent post, but for now, here is his treatment of the first two paragraphs of the Preliminary Principles. I do hope you will find this useful.
[Excerpted from The Presbyterian, vol. 95, no. 7 (21 October 1926), pages 6-7, 30.
Studies in Presbyterian Government
ASIDE from the laws of nature there are three general conceptions of law: (1) divine law; (2) civil law, and (3) the law of voluntary organizations. The divine law is found in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and nowhere else. It is summarily comprehended in the Ten Commandments. Civil law is expressed in constitutions and the statutes of the various nations. The law of voluntary organizations is a system of rules or regulations recognized by the members of respective organizations as governing their intercourse one with another. The Church of God to-day exists under the form of numerous denominations, each of which has its own constitution and rules or regulations subject to the law of God, and not opposed to the civil laws of the nation in which these churches exist. These denominations have certain constitutional beliefs and certain government statutes which they hold in common. The points at which they differ arise from differences of interpretations which they hold in regard to particular portions of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the final authority of all truly Christian denominations. Both in the civil and ecclesiastical bodies, their respective laws, including their constitutions and statutes, are the final and permanent bond of union, and any neglect or ignoring of this law means eventually the dissolution of the organization. It is therefore the reasonable and bounden duty of every member of every denomination to honor and obey its law. If conscience will not allow such obedience and loyalty, then the only honorable thing in the sight of God and good men is to withdraw from the organization or denomination. No reasonable or fair-minded man will try to do otherwise. If a member is of the opinion that some laws, while not contrary to his conscience, yet should be improved, amended or even exscinded, he has the right and liberty to seek such amendments or excision by following the course laid down in the law of the denomination to secure this end. But so long as one remains in the membership of a church denomination or any other constitutional organization, he is in honor bound to be loyal to its principles and government.
The Presbyterian Church has a definite and long-established Constitution, consisting of its doctrinal department, including the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms; its law department, including the Form of Government and the Book of Discipline; and its ritual, known as the Directory of Worship. We are all sorry to be required to acknowledge that many Presbyterians are not well informed upon the Constitution of the Church, and this lack of information has been responsible for much of the misunderstanding and contention which have recently annoyed and retarded the Church’s work. For the present, the discussion will be confined to the Form of Government and the Book of Discipline.
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 reads 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. The courts defended the rights of the former donors and organizations in connection with the case of Andover Seminary, when it declared the property of that institution could not be used save in support and furtherance of the evangelical faith. The failure to observe this principle of civil rights has permitted large properties to be diverted from the original purposes to which they were devoted, and to be used to support teachings and transactions which were wholly destructive of the original purpose and intention of the donor. Had the Presbyterian Church, U. S. A., been diligent in the discharge of its duty in connection with funds of Union Seminary, New York, there is little question but that institution would have been maintained in loyalty to the evangelical and Presbyterian faith and much contention and injury would have been avoided.
Principle II is as follows:
“II. That, in perfect consistency with the above principle of common right, 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 hath appointed: that in the exercise of this right they may, notwithstanding, err in terms of communion either too lax or too narrow; yet, even in this case, they do not infringe upon the liberty or rights of others, but only make an improper use of their own.”
While Principle I deals with rights of the individual, Principle II deals with the rights of the Christian organization or denomination. It maintains the right of the denomination or union of denominations to declare the terms of admission or communion, the qualification of ministers or members, as well as the whole system of internal government. Their only obligation is to Christ. If any church teaches doctrines contrary to the Word and command of Christ, he will hold that church severely accountable. When the individual learns of the terms of admission and communion in any church or denomination, he is at liberty to go in or stay out; but in the sight of God and of fair-minded men, he has no right either to enter or remain in any communion when he realizes that he does not believe its doctrine or approve the government. When any minister or elder fails to believe the doctrines of the Presbyterian Church as stated in its Confession of Faith and Catechisms, or to approve of its Form of Government and Discipline, he ought in obedience to the Word of God and the requisite of a gentleman quietly to withdraw. If he remains within the communion and continues to be indifferent or opposed to its doctrine and government, he ought to be required to go out. The chief cause of the present disturbance in the evangelical churches is due to the persistence of opposition on the part of many ministers and some lay officers who reject, deny or oppose both the doctrines and the law of the denomination to which they have solemnly avowed allegiance. This infidelity and unfaithfulness is one of the greatest disturbers of the peace and greatest hindrances to the progress of the present-day evangelical church, and should in some way be overcome.
Moreover, this Principle II in its nature requires active respect for the laws of the Church on the part of loyal members and officers of the Church. When some evil or wrong occurs in connection with the church courts against the right of individuals or the general interests of the Church, and there are specific laws provided to protect against such evils, the officers of the Church or the persons suffering wrong are in duty bound to use the laws provided for prevention of the evils, and the failure to use or appeal to these laws is a serious wrong and failure to
maintain justice, right and peace.