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More on the Preliminary Principles

In Church Polity, David S. Kennedy, Preliminary Principles, The Presbyterian on 06/08/2011 at 13:47

You will look long and hard to find any commentary on the Preliminary Principles. I’m referring to that document penned by the Rev. John Witherspoon in 1788 and adopted in 1789 as something of a foundational preface to the  Constitution of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. When the Orthodox Presbyterian Church was formed in 1936, they saw to the inclusion of these Principles in their Form of Government. So too fro the Bible Presbyterian Church which split from the OPC in 1938. Then several decades later, when the Presbyterian Church in America was organized in 1973, the Preliminary Principles were again included as part of the Preface to the Book of Church Order.

Digging a bit deeper, the story becomes more interesting. In the most recent edition of the OPC’s Book of Church Order [2011], I don’t find the Preliminary Principles included in that volume, nor do I see any explanation of their omission. Perhaps someone can provide that information. The Principles remain in the PCA’s BCO, but if we go back to their inclusion in 1973, it is intriguing to find out that the Principles were not part of the Southern Presbyterian tradition. In 1857 the PCUSA had begun an effort to revise its Book of Order, and the committee erected to perform that work completed a revision of the Rules of Discipline section. The War interrupted further progress on that effort for the PCUSA, but the newly formed Presbyterian Church, US had the motivation to continue the effort as they sought to define who they were as a separate Church. They began that work in earnest immediately at the close of the War and by 1867 the first draft of their new Book of Church Order was presented to their General Assembly. The process of revision continued on until 1879 when their BCO was finally adopted. However, it was notable that almost from the start, they rejected the Preliminary Principles. The reasons given by Rev. John Bailey Adger and others included the idea that the Principles were suitable only to a young church, and that they tended towards congregationalism.

What I find interesting is that the PCA, by including the Principles, was reaching outside of its own tradition and laying claim to something more of the breadth of American Presbyterianism.

Here now is a brief commentary on Principles III – V, with the conclusion to post next week. I have previously posted the first part of this commentary by the Rev. David S. Kennedy, covering paragraphs I and II, and the entire work is part of a serialized study by Dr. Kennedy which appeared on the pages of THE PRESBYTERIAN in 1926 and 1927, shortly after he had retired as editor of that journal.

Studies in Presbyterian Government
by Rev. David S. Kennedy, D.D.
[The Presbyterian 96.43 (28 Oct. 1926): 9.]

In our last article, on “The Form of Government, we discussed Principles I and II, which covered the right of private judgment and also the right of a company of people to organize for religious purposes and their right to determine terms of membership in such organization and the means for preserving its integrity and laws for its defense and promotion.

We now call attention to Principles III, IV and V.

Principle III, “That our blessed Saviour, for the edification of the visible church, which is his body, hath 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 ; and that 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.

This principle deals with the question of officers in the church as an organization, which organization itself has divine authority, according to Principle II.  This principle declares that right to have such officers in the church has the direct divine authority of our Lord himself. The duty of these officers is not only spiritual, to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments, but is also disciplinary. “for the preservation both of truth and duty” or right. This power of preservation is not simply a voluntary power. It is encumbent upon these powers to exercise it when the honor of God and the good of the church and the cause require it. When officers become negligent in these matters, it must result in unfaithfulness to God, the suppression of truth and right, and the consequent injury of Christianity and the church. It is not well or wise to exercise this disciplinary power in small, trifling or non-essential matters, but when truth or right is assailed, discipline is absolutely necessary. The let-alone policy here in all ages has meant embarrassment to the church and dishonor to her Head. The officers of the church cannot be too careful or too diligent in these matters. The modern tendency to regard the church as a business organization rather than a witnessing body has a tendency to overlook the divine appointment of officers and their duty of preservation of truth and right.

Principle IV : “That truth is in order to goodness, and the great touch-stone of truth, its tendency to promote holiness according to our Saviour’s rule. ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ And that no opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are. On the contrary, they are persuaded that 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.”

This Principle IV deals with fundamental matters of thinking and life in the times in which we live. There are two chief parts to this statement of principle. The first deals with the purpose and test of truth. It is here declared that the purpose of truth is to produce goodness. Truth and goodness are inseparable. If therefore the preaching, the teaching and the belief of the people are not in harmony with the truth of God, then we cannot expect goodness to appear in the lives of the people. Nor can we expect that first and most necessary good, the salvation of souls, to abound. The test of the truth of any teaching is its fruits. If the doctrines taught result in laxity of life and disobedience to God’s law, they must be false.

The second part of this principle sets forth the perniciousness of the conception that it does not make any difference what a man believes, if he only does right. Without truth there will be no right and no goodness. All this is a hard, direct blow against the modern Hegelianism which is pervading our institutions of learning and finding its way silently and unrecognized into the daily lives of our people. Briefly and roughly put, this philosophy declares that there is no standard of truth or right. Whatever any individual thinks to be true and right and good is true and right and good for him.

Principle V : “That while under the conviction of the above principle, they think it necessary to make effectual provision that all who are admitted as teachers be sound in the faith ; they also believe that there are truths and forms with respect to which men of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these they think it the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”

This principle recognizes a difference in importance between truths and between forms. Any truth plainly declared in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments must be received and obeyed. But there are some things which are not thus plainly declared and on which men who are one in their loyalty to our God and Lord, and to the Holy Scriptures, may differ as to interpretation. Paul puts this matter plainly when he says : “One believeth that he may eat all things ; another who is weak eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not, and let not him which eateth not, judge him that eateth, for God has received him. One thoroughly Christian man who believes the whole Bible and accepts Christ as God and Saviour interprets baptism in a way to require immersion ; another who accepts Christ and the Bible in the same way believes that either form of baptism is allowable. These are differences of interpretation. This is what is meant by Fundamentalism. It is agreement and unity on the positively revealed fundamentals, where toleration means doubt and dishonor to God. It also includes liberty on non-essentials of interpretation.

[To be concluded.]

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