By James Bannerman in The Church of Christ
We have now discussed at some length the subject of the Church and its relations to the state. It has been our task to consider the possibility and lawfulness of a friendly connection between the two; to argue the duty, both as it respects the Church and as it respects the state, of such an alliance; to indicate the necessity of some kind of understanding and concert between them, unless both are fatally to suffer; to discuss the bearing of such a co-operation on the spiritual independence of the Church and the practice of toleration by the state; and lastly, to investigate, in connection with the general argument, the question of liberty of conscience both as regards its extent and its limitations. And now, in bringing to a close the discussion, it may not be unimportant or uninteresting to consider the authoritative declarations of our Church on this somewhat difficult subject, as these are found embodied in her public standards. It is all the more important to do so, as the statements of the Westminster Confession of Faith on the subject of the power and duty of the civil magistrate in regard to religion have been both misinterpreted and misunderstood. A twofold accusation has been brought against the statements of the Confession on this subject. They have been charged, in the first place, with giving countenance to the Erastian principle of ascribing to the civil magistrate a proper jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters, and of surrendering to his power the inherent freedom and independence of the Church;1 and they have been charged, in the second place, with giving countenance to principles of persecution, and infringing seriously upon the rights of conscience in matters of faith.2 It may be well to consider the justice and the force of these two accusations, which, if true, are in no small measure fitted to damage the credit due to one of the noblest uninspired expositions of Divine truth anywhere to be found, and to subvert our confidence in it as an accurate and authoritative confession of our faith. Such charges are not lightly to be brought or believed against the authors of the Westminster Confession, who in an age of profound theological learning and great attainments in Divine truth were conspicuous among their contemporaries, and who especially were eminent in that very department of controversial Divinity which relates to the magistrate’s power and office in reference to the Church. The question of the relations of the civil and ecclesiastical powers to each other was argued at the date of the Westminster Assembly as it never was argued either before or since; and it was the very men who had won the palm in the controversy, and gained the victory for the truth, who in that Assembly brought their vast learning and vaster powers to bear upon the point, and to lay down in the Confession of Faith the extent and limits of the magistrate’s authority in regard to religion. The character of the men who drew up the Confession, and the circumstances of the time in which they were called upon to do so, afford no small presumption against the truth of such charges. Those who had fought the battle of the Church’s independence against the Erastians of their day with their learned and ready pens, and who further still had to contend with the Parliament of England, under whose authority they were assembled, on the very same question, are not the men to be lightly, or without strong evidence, accused of justifying Erastianism or persecution. Let us endeavour to examine the grounds on which such a charge is made. Is it true that the Westminster Confession of Faith arms the civil magistrate with a power to destroy the liberty of Christ’s Church, giving to the state a proper jurisdiction in spiritual things? Further still, is it true that the Westminster Confession of Faith disavows the principles of toleration, and countenances the doctrine of persecution for conscience sake?
I. Let us inquire into the truth of the charge brought against the standards, of laying down principles that countenance Erastianism.
The ground on which this accusation is made, is to be found in the third section of the 23d chapter of the Confession of Faith, under the title, “Of the Civil Magistrate.” It is there stated, “The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and Sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.” Such is the doctrine laid down in our standards respecting the duty and office of the civil magistrate in regard to the Church. It may be conceded that, taken out of its connection, and viewed apart without reference to other statements in the Confession, and without regard to the use and meaning in their day of the somewhat technical language employed by the authors of it, the words do sound at first as if they ascribed to the civil magistrate a larger share of power circa sacra than we should now concede to him. But a very slight attention to the context, and to the real meaning of the language made use of, will be enough to remove all difficulty from the passage.
There are two canons of criticism which, in order to guard against misinterpretation of this, as of many other passages, it is somewhat important to bear in mind. First, the language of two or more passages in any given composition, more especially a composition purporting to be an accurate and authoritative statement of doctrine or Divine truth, must be interpreted in the sense that makes them consistent with each other; and it is not allowable to assume such an interpretation of them as would make the author plainly and directly to contradict himself. And second, the language of any passage must be understood in the sense commonly attached to it in the author’s day, and not in the sense which subsequent changes in expression at any after time may have affixed to it. These two canons of interpretation are obviously just in themselves, and are indispensable to a right understanding of any author. And if we bear them in mind, there will be no great difficulty in reaching the true meaning of the passages already quoted from the Confession of Faith, and in ascertaining that, so interpreted, it ascribes to the civil magistrate no undue or Erastian jurisdiction in connection with spiritual things.
1. Other statements of the Confession of Faith, to be interpreted in connection with this passage found in the 23d chapter, expressly and undeniably exclude the proper jurisdiction of the civil magistrate in spiritual matters; and this passage must be understood in accordance with, and not in contradiction to, them.
That such is the case, the very slightest reference to the other chapters of the Confession, which treat of the Church and of the state, will abundantly manifest. To whom does the Confession ascribe supreme authority and jurisdiction within the bounds of the Christian Church, so that from Him all rule and power within it are derived? Is it to that party who is supreme over the state, and from whom all authority in the state proceeds? Or is the magistrate expressly and wholly excluded from such authority, by the entire ascription of it to another and not to him? Let the brief but most comprehensive statement in the 25th chapter of the Confession answer the question: “There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ.”1 The right interpretation and legitimate application of this single truth would, without anything else, fairly lead to the exclusion of the civil magistrate from the province of the Church, and to the denial of any proper jurisdiction on his part in spiritual matters. But is it insinuated or objected, that although the civil magistrate cannot, in consistency with the language of the Confession, be the head of the Church, he may be a subordinate ruler under the Head, and may still possess and exercise, in a certain sense, jurisdiction in the Church, although an inferior jurisdiction to that of Christ? Is it alleged that, without any great violence done to the language of the Confession, the civil magistrate may still be looked upon as a ruler in the Christian society, holding a real although a secondary place in the government of its affairs? Then let the explicit language of the 30th chapter of the Confession remove the possibility of such a construction being put on the doctrine of our standards: “The Lord Jesus Christ, as King and Head of His Church, hath therein appointed a government in the hand of Church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.”1 Neither as supreme nor as subordinate—neither as occupying the first seat of authority, nor yet an inferior office within the Church—has the civil magistrate, according to the doctrine of the Confession, any place or footing, in the sense of proper jurisdiction, in spiritual things. Or, if additional evidence were wanting on the question of the unequivocal and uniform doctrine of our standards, excluding the state from authority within the Church, that evidence would be found in the very section of the Confession quoted as the ground on which the charge of Erastianism against it is built: “The civil magistrate,” says the first clause of that section, “may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and Sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” It is plain that this first clause is intended to limit what follows in the section. This is obvious both from its position in the sentence at the beginning, and also from the conjunction “yet,” which immediately follows: “yet he, the magistrate, has authority, and it is his duty,” etc. Now there can be no difficulty in understanding the import of this first or limiting clause of the sentence.
“The power of the keys” has a twofold meaning: one more extensive, implying the whole power belonging to the Church, as contradistinguished from “the power of the sword,” belonging to the civil magistrate; the other a more limited meaning, implying the ordinary power of government and discipline exercised by the Church. It is in this latter or more restricted sense of the phrase that the expression must be understood in this passage, when it is distinguished from the power of the Church in the administration of Word and ordinances. And what, I ask, is the limitation thus put upon the office of the magistrate, at the very outset of the description of his power, and to be understood as restricting it in all ascribed to him of rule or authority afterward? Not only may he not assume to himself the power to dispense Word and Sacrament in the Church; but further, he may not assume to himself the power to exercise government or discipline within it. The exclusion of the civil magistrate from the whole province that can possibly belong to the Church is absolute and complete; for all that province is included within the twofold description of power implied in the two expressions, “the administration of the Word and Sacraments,” and “the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” Within this entire territory the civil magistrate cannot enter, and the Church claims jurisdiction over none other. The uniform and undeniable doctrine of the Confession of Faith, then, is a denial of the proper jurisdiction of the civil magistrate in spiritual and ecclesiastical matters. Nowhere is this denial more explicit and broad than in the opening clause of the very sentence which has been made the occasion of this charge of Erastianism against it, which clause must be held to limit and rule the interpretation of the rest. And unless the Confession of Faith is to be interpreted upon the principle of making it contradict itself, and that within the narrow limits of a single sentence, instead of being consistent with itself, it is impossible that the charge of Erastianism can be well founded.
2. The ascription of power to the civil magistrate about the Church, in the passage of the Confession of Faith under discussion, can be easily and fairly explained without conceding to the civil magistrate power within the Church, as on the Erastian scheme.
Almost the whole of the plausibility belonging to the objection, which from this sentence in our standards would impute Erastianism to them, arises from the confounding of these two things, the power of proper jurisdiction within the Church, and the power of a certain authority about the Church. These two things are widely different: the one of them belonging, according to the doctrine of the Confession, to the civil magistrate; the other of them being expressly denied to him by the same doctrine. But where this difference is not seen or is denied, the ascription to the state of the one authority is readily enough mistaken for the concession to it of the other. The Confession distinctly and frequently announces the doctrine, that the civil magistrate has a certain power about religion,—a certain authority and duty to provide for, and promote by competent means the wellbeing and interests of, the Church. At the beginning of the chapter from which the sentence in dispute is quoted, the Confession lays down the general principle, that “God, the Supreme Lord and King of the world, hath ordained civil magistrates to be under Him, over the people, for His own glory and the public good;” and then, that in the managing of their office, they “ought especially to maintain piety, justice, and peace;”1—a principle which fairly implies that the state has a certain office or authority about the Church, to promote and advance its interests. And the Confession does nothing more than carry out this principle, and point out more in detail what the magistrate may do for this end, when it goes on, in the passage under discussion, to ascribe to him his place and powers in the matter. Now, this is a widely different thing from attributing to the civil magistrate jurisdiction within the Church; neither can it be regarded as laying the Confession open to the charge of Erastianism. All that is fairly implied in it, is the ascription to the state of a certain authority about the Church, for the purpose of promoting its interests, not the ascription to it of an authority within the Church, for the purpose of exercising jurisdiction there. No doubt the disciples of the Voluntary school may confound these two things, or identify them; and having denied any distinction between them, may affirm that when the Confession ascribes a power about the Church to the magistrate, it in reality ascribes to him a power within the Church.2 But except upon the Voluntary principle, which we need not now stop to refute, the two things are not identical; and the charge therefore of Erastianism, built on their identification, is unfounded.
3. More particularly, the special instrumentality described in the Confession of Faith as proper to be employed by the civil magistrate in the exercise of his authority about the Church, involves no Erastian usurpation over it.
What is the method or the instrumentality to be used by the magistrate in attaining the great end which the Confession declares that it is competent for him to seek and aim at about the Church? The passage under discussion distinctly declares this. “Yet he hath authority,” says the Confession, after denying to the magistrate “the power of the keys,”—“yet he hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God may be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof,” continues the Confession, in describing the instrumentality to be employed, “for the better effecting whereof, he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.” Now we have here first of all a statement of the object to be aimed at by the civil magistrate, and next a description of the means to be employed by him for that purpose. The object to be aimed at is described as “the preservation of unity and peace in the Church, the maintenance of the purity and completeness of its doctrine, the suppression of blasphemy and heresy, the reformation of corruptions and abuses in its worship and discipline, and the due observance and administration of ordinances.” This is the object to be aimed at by the magistrate; and no one except those Voluntaries who hold that the state has nothing to do with religion, will deny that it is both competent and good for the magistrate to aim at such an end. Every man, indeed, whether in public office or private life, is bound to seek to attain such an object by his prayers, and by every other means competent to him. The only question that can arise in connection with the doctrine thus laid down, is as to the lawfulness or unlawfulness of the means which it is said the magistrate may employ to accomplish the object. How or in what terms are those means described? The method by which the civil magistrate may, according to the Confession, seek to attain the end in view, is described by four different forms of expression in the passage under discussion.
V 1, p 179 1st. The magistrate is to “take order” for those objects or ends which he aims at. The expression is a technical one, common in the controversial theology of the times of the Westminster Assembly, and undoubtedly to be interpreted according to the usus loquendi of that day. It is a very general term, which may be easily proved to mean generally, to provide for, to attend to, to take care to accomplish,—language very far from involving the use of Erastian instrumentality or jurisdiction in the affairs of the Church.
2d. The magistrate, for the effecting of his object, is said to have power to “call synods.” Neither does this second method to be used by him necessarily imply any authority or jurisdiction on his part to decide or rule in spiritual things. In the second section of the 31st chapter of the Confession of Faith, the same doctrine in regard to the power of the civil magistrate “to call synods of ministers, and other fit persons, to consult and advise with about matters of religion,” is laid down. But the Act of Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1647, which ratified the Westminster Confession as the Confession of our Church, expressly excepts this doctrine in regard to the magistrate’s power of summoning synods, and limits it to the use of Churches not duly constituted or settled. “It is declared,” says the Act of Assembly 1647, in reference to the Westminster Confession, “it is declared that the Assembly understands some parts of the second article of the 31st chapter only of Kirks not settled or constituted in point of government; and that although in such Kirks a synod of ministers and other fit persons may be called by the magistrate’s authority and nomination, without any other call, to consult and advise with about matters of religion; and although, likewise, the ministers of Christ, without delegation from their Churches, may of themselves and by virtue of their office meet together synodically in such Kirks not yet constituted, yet neither of these ought to be done in Kirks constituted and settled; it being always free to the magistrate to advise with synods of ministers and ruling elders meeting upon delegation from their Churches either ordinarily or, being indicted by his authority, occasionally, and pro re natâ; it being also free to assemble together synodically, as well pro re natâ as at the ordinary times, upon delegation from the Churches, by the intrinsical power received from Christ, as often as it is necessary for the good of V 1, p 180 the Church so to assemble, in case the magistrate, to the detriment of the Church, withhold or deny his consent; the necessity of occasional Assemblies being first remonstrate unto him by humble supplication.” But independently of the limitation attached by our Church to the doctrine of the Confession on this point, and with which limitation its ministers subscribe it, the language of the Confession does not necessarily imply anything Erastian. If it is admitted that the Scriptures do give a certain authority to the civil magistrate to seek to promote the Church’s welfare as well as that of the state, it were hardly possible, I think, to deny that upon Scripture grounds he has warrant also to summon together Assemblies of the Church on occasion, to give advice or to ask it, in regard to the duties whether of the Church or of the state.
3d. The civil magistrate, for the better effecting of his object, has, according to the doctrine of the Confession, power “to be present at synods” which he calls. This is the third kind of instrumentality which it is lawful for him to employ to gain his end. With regard to this, it may be fairly maintained that, independently of any other title, it is the civil right of the magistrate to be present at any assembly whatsoever, convened within his dominion. But apart from this, the presence of the magistrate in the synods of the Church can imply no Erastian jurisdiction over them so long as he does not ask to preside, or dictate, or interfere in their deliberations.
4th. The last method of seeking to attain his object mentioned by the Confession is described in these terms: the magistrate is to be present at synods, and “to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.” Here too, as in the case of “taking order,” the expression is a somewhat technical one, and to be interpreted according to the use of such theological terms at the time when employed. Explained according to this principle, the term means simply to make it an object of care and attention generally, that what is done be done according to the word of God. So interpreted, it comes very far short indeed of anything implying Erastian control on the part of the magistrate in seeking his object, or any assertion of a right to review, or reverse, or in any way overbear, the decisions of Church Courts. These are all the means specified by the Confession of Faith as lying open to the civil magistrate to employ V 1, p 181 in seeking to promote the interests of religion and of the Church of Christ; and it is plain that none of them imply or necessitate on his part the assumption of any proper control or jurisdiction in spiritual matters.1
II. Let us briefly inquire into the truth of the charge brought against the Confession of Faith, of laying down principles that countenance persecution for conscience sake.
In support of this second accusation, reference is made to the fourth section of the 20th chapter of the Confession. It runs as follows: “And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another; they who, on pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God. And for their publishing of such opinions or maintaining of such practices as are contrary to the light of nature or to the known principles of Christianity, whether concerning faith, worship, or conversation; or to the power of godliness; or such erroneous opinions or practices as either in their own nature, or in their manner of publishing or maintaining them, are destructive to the external peace and order which Christ hath established in the Church; they may lawfully be called to account, and proceeded against by the censures of the Church, and by the power of the civil magistrate.” Such is the passage in the Westminster Confession, on which the charge against it of avowing and abetting persecution is founded. Let us see whether, as in the case of the former charge, a more careful consideration of the language and principles of the standards, not as seen in this insulated statement, but viewed in connection with their whole doctrine on the question, may not serve to rebut the accusation.
Now, in the first place, the principles of the Confession of Faith undeniably exclude persecution for conscience sake, if its statements are to be made consistent with each other, and not self-contradictory.
In the very chapter from which the passage in question is V 1, p 182 extracted, and towards the commencement of it, as the leading and ruling proposition of the whole, the doctrine of liberty of conscience is broadly and unequivocally laid down: “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are in anything contrary to His Word, or beside it, in matters of faith or worship. So that to believe such doctrines or obey such commands out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience; and the requiring of an implicit faith and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also.”1 The principles here laid down, if fairly carried out, involve in them all that is necessary to establish the doctrine of toleration in its present sense, and to exclude the possibility of persecution for conscience sake. The fondest devotee and most eloquent advocate of toleration never laid down a nobler or a surer foundation on which to rear the apology for universal liberty of conscience. And unless the leading proposition contained in the chapter is to be contradicted by that which follows, it is impossible to allege that the subsequent statement of the Confession can bear a meaning which countenances or abets persecution for conscience sake.
But, in the second place, the object aimed at in the subsequent statements of the chapter is not at all to determine what or where the limits are, beyond which liberty of conscience ceases, but to assert that there are limits, where the authority which God has appointed comes in to restrict the right.
In the history and tenets of the Sectaries during the time of the Commonwealth, the authors of the Confession had had but too familiar and painful experience of the mischievous consequences resulting from what they call “the pretence of Christian liberty.” There were not wanting men at that period who interpreted the right of conscience so as to be inconsistent with the lawful exercise of authority, whether civil or ecclesiastical,—accounting that the plea of conscience, when urged by any man, justified him in resisting both the commands of the civil magistrate and the authority of the Church.2 And it was necessary to assert the V 1, p 183 doctrine, that these two—conscience on the one hand, and lawful authority, whether civil or ecclesiastical, on the other—are not really inconsistent with each other, that they are equally ordinances of God, and that they are designed by Him not to contradict, but only to limit each other. On the one side, authority, whether civil or ecclesiastical, is not absolute and unrestricted; for it is limited by the rights of conscience on the part of the members both of the state and Church. On the other side, the rights of conscience are not absolute and unrestricted either; for they are met and limited by authority both civil and ecclesiastical. It is this doctrine—important at all times, but especially so at the time of the Westminster Assembly—which it is the main object of the authors of the Confession in the subsequent part of this chapter to inculcate. Accordingly they tell us: “They who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, do practise any sin or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian V 1, p 184 liberty; which is, that being delivered out of the hands of our enemies, we might serve the Lord without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him, all the days of our life. And because the powers which God hath ordained, and the liberty which Christ hath purchased, are not intended by God to destroy, but mutually to uphold and preserve one another; they who, upon pretence of Christian liberty, shall oppose any lawful power, or the lawful exercise of it, whether it be civil or ecclesiastical, resist the ordinance of God.” The great object of the Confession in this part of the chapter is to lay down the doctrine that there are limits to the rights of conscience,—limits necessitated by the ordinance of civil magistracy on the one hand, and ecclesiastical authority on the other, in their lawful exercise. Where those limits are to be laid down, it is not at all the object of the Confession to say. At what point the plea of conscience ceases to avail against the interference of authority, whether civil or ecclesiastical, our Confession does not profess to determine. That there are such limits it asserts; that there is such a point it affirms; although the answer to the question where those limits are to be drawn, or where the point of lawful interference is to be fixed, it does not take upon it the hazardous office of announcing. That there are certain limits to the right of liberty of conscience, and that there are opinions and practices, hostile to religion and civil society, which, although they may plead the argument of conscience in their behalf, may nevertheless be proscribed by the civil magistrate,—this is the fair amount of the doctrine enunciated. It does not decide the difficult question of how far the right of conscience may go or may not go in the way of arresting the interference of authority within Church or state. It does not decide what particular opinions or practices ought to be dealt with penally by the state. The object of its authors was accomplished in announcing the general doctrine that there are such limits, and that there are such opinions and practices; thereby contradicting the mischievous tenet, that conscience is a plea sufficient against the lawful exercise of all authority whatsoever. It would be very difficult, I think, indeed, to lay down the negative of the doctrine thus inculcated by the Confession of Faith.
In the third place, examples may be readily adduced of opinions and practices such as those pointed at by the Confession, V 1, p 185 in regard to which few, or perhaps none, will deny that, in certain circumstances or emergencies, the civil magistrate “may,” to use the terms of the Confession, “proceed against them” by his proper coercive power. The opinions and practices referred to in the Confession may be ranked under these three heads or classes: those “against the light of nature;” those “against the principles of Christianity;” and those “against the peace and order of the Church.” Without stopping to illustrate the argument, it is enough to say, that perhaps no man will deny that the civil magistrate may, in certain circumstances (for the doctrine of the Confession does not make it imperative upon him), may proceed, for example, against incest, as a sin of the first class, against nature; against blasphemy, as a sin of the second class, against Christianity; and against the violation of the Sabbath, as a sin of the third class, against the peace and order of the Church.
These remarks may be sufficient to indicate the nature of the argument by which the standards of the Church may be vindicated against the charge alike of Erastianism and persecution, and be fairly interpreted as, in fact, in direct opposition to both.1
1 [Marshall, Ecclesiastical Establishments further Considered, Glasgow 1831, p. 324. Wardlaw, National Church Establishments Examined, London 1839, pp. 360–364.]
2 [Wardlaw, National Church Establishments Examined, pp. 368–371.]
1 Conf. c. xxv. 6.
1 Conf. c. xxx. 1.
1 Conf. c. xxiii. 1, 2.
2 [Wardlaw, National Church Establishments Examined, p. 362.]
1 Gillespie, CXI. Propositions concerning the Ministry and Government of the Church, Prop. 3–6, 39–52, 62–69, 80–99. Voetius, Polit. Eccles. tom. i. lib. i. Tract ii. cap. iv. Qu. 4, 5, 9–15. M‘Crie, Unity of the Church, Edinr. 1821, pp. 138–143. Cunningham, Works, vol. iv. pp. 211–234.
1 Conf. c. xx. 2.
2 The Sectaries who during the civil wars used the watchwords of “liberty of conscience” and “universal toleration,” in behalf of views which the authors of the Westminster standards felt bound to oppose as in the highest degree destructive of civil and ecclesiastical order, may be divided into four classes: 1. Those who “pretended liberty of conscience” against all Church authority,—such as the Brownists, who held that no man should be brought under Church discipline or excommunicated for any action or opinion in behalf of which he could urge that plea. 2. Those who “pretended liberty of conscience” against all civil authority,—such as the Fifth Monarchy men, who demanded universal community of goods and levelling of ranks, and “the world to be put under the feet of the saints.” 3. Those who “pretended liberty of conscience” against the practical authority of the law of God,—such as the Antinomians, who maintained that the moral law was buried in the grave of Christ, and was no longer binding upon a Christian man as a rule of duty. 4. Those who “pretended liberty of conscience” against the authority of God as a standard of belief conveyed to us in the Scriptures,—such as the Libertines, who asserted that all opinions were alike innocent, if only held conscientiously.
A full account of the dangerous and often most blasphemous and repulsive forms in which the views now referred to found expression, and of the feelings with which pious men regarded them at the time, may be seen in Thomas Edwards’ Gangræna, first and second part, 3d ed., preface and pp. 15–34; third part, London 1646, pp. 2–16. Baillie’s Dissuasive from the Errours of the Time, London 1645, chap. i.–vi. It was not unnatural that the extravagant claims put forth by the Sectaries for an absolutely unlimited toleration and liberty of conscience should lead to a reaction on the other side. Accordingly we find that Rutherford, Dickson, and Fergusson, in writing against such views, in some instances went too far, and laid down positions which were indefensible, and really involved persecution. Their errors on this subject mainly arose from their holding that the Jewish political laws were of permanent obligation, and consequently that capital punishment might still be lawfully inflicted for such offences as idolatry. Rutherford, Pretended Liberty of Conscience. Fergusson of Kilwinning, Brief Refutation of the Errors of Tolleration, Erastianism, Independency, and Separation, Edinr. 1692, sec. ii. pp. 47–85. David Dickson, Truth’s Victory over Error, chap. xx. Qu. 4. M‘Crie, Miscellaneous Writings, Edinr. 1841, pp. 468–486, 502–512. Hetherington, History of the Westminster Assembly, Edinr. 1843, pp. 150–157, 351–362. [Compare also Mr. Palmer’s arguments in favour of persecution. Treatise on the Church, vol. ii. pp. 335, 363–370.]
1 M‘Crie, Unity of the Church, pp. 133–138.
James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1868), 171–185.