Déjà Vu All Over Again? Confessions and the Modern Spirit

After declining several invitations, John Witherspoon (1723-94) finally accepted a call as the first pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church and president of Princeton College. At Princeton he also taught theology, history, and philosophy to many of the new nation’s leaders, including James Madison, Aaron Burr, and a host of supreme court justices and members of Congress. Besides being the only clergyman (and college president) to sign the Declaration of Independence, Witherspoon also drafted the Articles of Confederation and gave input on the U.S. Constitution. However, his lesser-known ministry in the Church of Scotland was just as active and controversial. Before emigrating, Witherspoon wrote a Ecclesiastical Maxims, a collection of maxims that employed satire as a way of illustrating the feeble sentiments of the Kirk’s “Moderate” wing. This one is too relevant to our own day to overlook. The views he targets here are often repeated in our day and this satire reminds us that in spite of the “postmodern” advertisements, anti-confessional arguments have varied little from their “modern” script:

John Witherspoon (Ecclesiastical Characteristics, Maxim III):

“It is a necessary part of the character of a moderate man, never to speak of the Confession of Faith but with a sneer; to give sly hints, that he does not thoroughly believe it; and to make the word orthodoxy a term of contempt and reproach.

“The Confession of Faith, which we are now all laid under a disagreeable necessity to subscribe, was framed in times of hot religious zeal; and therefore it can hardly be supposed to contain any thing agreeable to our sentiments in these cool and refreshing days of moderation. So true is this, that I do not remember to have heard any moderate man speak well of it, or recommend it, in a sermon, or private discourse, in my time, And, indeed, nothing can be more ridiculous, than to make a fixed standard for opinions, which change just as the fashions of clothes and dress. No complete system can be settled for all ages, except the maxims I am now compiling and illustrating, and their great perfection lies in their being ambulatory, so that they may be applied differently, with the change of times.

“…There is one very strong particular reason why moderate men cannot love the Confession of Faith; moderation evidently implies a large share of charity, and consequently a good and favorable opinion of those that differ from our church; but a rigid adherence to the Confession of Faith, and high esteem of it, nearly borders upon, or gives great suspicion of harsh opinions of those that differ from us: and does not experience rise up and ratify this observation? Who are the narrow-minded, bigotted, uncharitable persons among us? Who are the severe censurers of those that differ in judgment? Who are the damners of the adorable Heathens, Socrates, Plato, Marcus Antonius, &c.? In fine, who are the persecutors of the inimitable heretics among ourselves? Who but the admirers of this antiquated composition, who pin their faith to other men’s sleeves, and will not endure one jot less or different belief from what their fathers had before them! It is therefore plain, that the moderate man, who desires to inclose all intelligent beings in one benevolent embrace, must have an utter abhorrence at that vile hedge of distinction, the Confession of Faith…

From Michael Horton at Out of The Horse’s Mouth (The White Horse Inn Blog).

One response to “Déjà Vu All Over Again? Confessions and the Modern Spirit

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