Page images

type toward the credal simplicity of the earliest Christian ages. Bishop Burnet, writing in the seventeenth century of the great Protestant formularies of the preceding century, anticipated the sanest sentiment of the present day when he said: “It had been an invaluable blessing if the Christian religion had been kept in its original simplicity.” In his work on the ThirtyNine Articles he felt obliged to apologize for their theological range; and yet these Articles, with these of the Augsburg Confession, are the least diffuse of all the historical statements of Protestantism. The great Churchman's apology is in these words: "It may seem somewhat strange to see such a collection of tenets made the standard of the doctrines of a Church that is deservedly valued by reason of her moderation : this seems to be a departing from the simplicity of the first ages, which yet we pretend to set up for a pattern." Continuing; he says: "Since the Church of Rome owns all that is positive in our doctrines, there could be no discrimination made but by condemning the most important of those additions that they have brought into the Christian religion, in express words." This is the imperative in the confession as history has seen it develop. It is the answer to untruth.

The principle of which I have spoken as having been especially illustrated in the formularies of Protestantism had its roots in the primal record of the confession contained in the evangel. For physical background that record had the “coasts of Cesarea Philippi;" but for historical antecedents, the ages of prophecy and Jewish controversy. For possible range the confession had the formularies and expanded systems of all the ancient and then extant rabbinical schools. But it ignored what to an adherent of the schools had been an opportunity, and fulfilled only the demands of personal faith. "Whom do men say that I the Son of man am ? . And they said, Some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." Here, indeed, is the norm of all true Churchly confessions, as also an indication of their rationale and inclusions. The situation plainly suggests the historical incentive as the warrant for the authoritative confession. The law governing the growing distinction between creeds and confessions is of great value to present-day faith. Its use is to light the way through present beclouding controversies and others lowering on the horizon of the age. The doctrinal statement that aspires to become effective and historic must answer to this law. Place for thought and faith-changing formularies is not made by the votes and resolutions of assemblies, but through the abundant and seasonable provisions of the time spirit. The when of an authoritative statement of doctrine is no more the simple choice of men, or schools of men, than is the substance of the doctrines to be stated. However unwilling and imperfect their submission, men must at last stand by and see history write itself.

If theology is a science, it is a correlate of history and partakes of its necessities and spirit. "I speak," says Professor James Orr, "of a parallel between the theological system and the historical development of dogma, and of a logical law underlying both. The law is in both cases the same.” There is, then, a theological system, as there has been, and still is, a historical development of dogma, to be considered. In a true sense these have been parallel, and, without doubt, one law underlies both—the law of cause and effect. Growth or change in the theological system brings nearer the day of the new dogmatic statement, so long as one shall be needed; but he is but an indifferent student of theological development who does not see that the dogmatic statement can come, and properly should come, only when theological thought and discussion have completed their cycle and culminated in dynamical manifestations. The recognition of this limiting principle of necessity is the only way to keep the confession from becoming a diffuse and overflowing manual of theological opinions.

A creed has in it the element of fixedness. It emanates from the inner life of the Church, but not wholly without influence from external occasions, as has sometimes been claimed. It consists of the verified and immutable elements of the confession that have suffered the final test and fulfilled their day of protest. It is a writing (though as for that, much of the Church's creed is often unwritten) whose terms have been chastened to the last limit of compression and adaptability, and into which have gone the souls of the confessors. It is a formula suited to use inside the Church, as in the instruction of catechumens, in baptismal dedication, and in obligating Church members. It serves also as a ready answer to inquiring interest. The confession is, on the other hand, the Church's answer to heretical departures and innovations which have become overt in the body of Christianity. “The natural heresies in Christianity," says Schleiermacher, "are the Docetic, the Nazaraic, the Manichæan, and the Pelagian." These were the occasions of those historic polemical writings in the early Church which go under the names of symbols and apologies. They produced the necessity for declaratory statements, to which other controversies added, and to which others sufficiently momentous and crucial may yet contribute. This was the necessity which forced a Confession from the first defenders of the faith of Protestantism. It is the only proper provocative of such a writing.

The plain logic of what we have thus discovered is that, while the creed of the Church—“a brief compendium of the objects of our Christian faith”—is an enduring formula, the confession is a writing whose use is confined to an age or a cycle of thought. When any one protest or contention of the confession ceases to have force or pertinency, by reason of the disappearance of the abuse or false doctrine covered by it, it is eliminated, or else ceases to be regarded, and the question goes back to the realm of things privately interpreted. This rightly fixes upon every confession and dogmatic statement the limitations which naturally belong to human thinking. The confessions of Christendom are thus to become expressive of true theological progress through a process of elimination

2“An Exposition of the Creed,” Pearson.

rather than by wholesale additions to their tenets, or the picking up of supposed theological drop-stitches.

The Church has already had wholesome illustrations of the possibility of statement-making by elimination. Three entire articles of the Edwardine Confession were omitted by Archbishop Parker and his associates in making up the draft of the Elizabethan or Thirty-Nine Articles. The historian assures us that these tenets having been directed against extravagances of the Anabaptists which had disappeared in the meantime, their presence in the Confession was no longer pertinent. The Thirty-Nine Articles were in their turn shorn of their history-worn elements by American Methodists, Mr. Wesley being the mover of their vote. This recension was the appropriate sign not only of the rising of a new ecclesiastical jurisdiction, but of the empowerment of a new spirit in theology. The chastened and abridged Anglican Confession exactly expounded that spirit by so much as Methodism is the historical successor of Anglicanism. The Reformed Episcopal Church followed, in a similar recension, the example of its elder American sister. The Protestant Episcopal Church was near doing the same thing at its beginning, in 1785. Bishop Williams, the American editor of Bishop Browne's work on the Thirty-Nine Articles, recites in a footnote appended to that volume the details of this interesting history. The Convocation called to organize the Church was about adopting a series of twenty articles, which it is understood were in effect an abridgment of the Thirty-Nine

*See Schaff on these Articles.

« PreviousContinue »