New In Print: Samuel Miller On Presbyterianism

Samuel Miller (1769–1850) is significant figure in American Presbyterian Church history. He is a figure that anyone who is interested in Reformed theology, piety, and practice should know. He belonged to the Old School of American Presbyterianism. He was professor of Church History and Church Government at Old Princeton for 36 years. The Old School pastors and theologians confessed the Westminster Standards (i.e., the Westminster Confession of Faith as amended by the American Church in 1788, together with the Larger and Shorter Catechism) contained the “system of doctrine” taught in Holy Scripture and they subscribed them as such. They opposed the “Plan of Union” (1801) with the New England Congregationalists. That union brought with it an influx of doctrines and practices that created tensions with the Westminster Standards. Some of the Old Schoolers opposed the theology of Samuel Hopkins (1721–1803), a student of Jonathan Edwards (1703–58), because he modified the doctrine of sin but they could not tolerate, however, the theology of Nathaniel W. Taylor (1786–1858), who, according to Mark Noll, “regarded himself as a successor of Edwards, he went even further than [Timothy] Dwight in modifying Edwards’ views, especially in regard to human nature. In his day Taylor was best known for his argument that people always had a ‘power to the contrary’ when faced with the choice for God. He also contended that human sinfulness arose from sinful acts, not from sinful nature inherited from Adam. Everyone did sin, Taylor held, but this was not a result of God’s predestinating action or the imputation of Adam’s guilt.1 In 1837, the Old School led the abrogation of the Plan of Union in the Northern Presbyterian Church. In 1838, the New School opposed the ratification of that act and split the Presbyterian Church. D. G. Hart and John Muether explain,

Today the term Old School Presbyterian has a variety of meanings, but at the time of the division of 1837 it reflected the effort of American Presbyterians to resist being absorbed into the general mainstream of generic American Protestantism. Contemporary Presbyterians may think that being Old School involves certain views on creation, Scripture, sabbatarianism, or worship, but during the middle decades of the nineteenth century, as the Western Memorial indicated, it stood for Presbyterianism that was self-conscious about Calvinism and Presbyterian church polity. In fact, Old School Presbyterianism was opposed to New School Presbyterian views and impulses as much as it was committed to definite views of soteriology and ecclesiology.

Miller, of course, was born 19 years before the Americans revised the Westminster Confession. He attended the first general assembly (1789) and was licensed to and preach and ordained to pastoral ministry in 1791. Princeton Seminary was established in 1812 and in the next year he was given his professorship. In some ways, as Harrison Perkins, editor of the present edition, explains in his introduction, Presbyterianism: Its History, Doctrine, Government, and Worship (1835) serves as a summary of Miller’s concerns and emphases. Perkins writes, “[t]he final chapter may perhaps appear the most useful and challenging. Miller considers the worship of Presbyterianism and relates nine common evangelical practices that Presbyterians  adamantly deny, These include but are not limited to: prescribed liturgies, observance of holy days, kneeling at the Lord’s Supper, and private communion. The exceptions may prove surprising to many modern Presbyterians. Miller, however. doesn’t appear to perceive any potential objection” (pp. xiii–xiv). Though first published 185 years ago (under a different title) this volume is still worth your attention. Both those who think of themselves as Reformed or who are discovering Reformed theology, piety, and practice will benefit from Miller’s work.

Samuel Miller, Presbyterianism: Its History, Doctrine, Government, and Worship, ed. Harrison Perkins (Madison, MS: Log College Press, 2020) is $14.99 in paperback and $8.99 as an e-book.

NOTES

1. s.v., “New Haven Theology,” in Sinclair B. Ferguson and J.I. Packer, ed. New Dictionary of Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

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6 comments

  1. Please expand on your description of the orthodox Reformed view of private communion and, most pointedly as tomorrow is Easter Sunday, of virtual communion. Miller sounds like “my kind of guy,” and I’d like to have a more informed understanding of why virtual/private communion seems ill-advised, even dangerous, to me. I heard your interview on the subject of virtual communion, and I would appreciate more information about the orthodox Reformed position. By the way, the willingness to adapt to the Wuhan virus pandemic by virtual or private communion seems to me to be post-modern: the appearance and emotional experience of reality, but not real at all. Like the post-modern pillars in a post-modern building in Atlanta that are substantial but do not reach the ceiling, so they uphold nothing at all. They just seem to bear weight.

    • The virtual church is a gnostic church and cannot be the Christian church, because long story short, Christ came in the flesh. In Heb. 10:15 the call is to assemble in the flesh.
      Terry Johnson had some good remarks over at Reformation 21 with his post Coronavirus and the Church: Compliant, or Uncreative?

      Yet it should be acknowledged that the virtual church is not the church. Actually gathering, actually occupying space together as a church is foundational to the definition of a church and to its practice. Jesus speaks of the church in terms of a structure of accountability and authority (Mt 18:15-18). The Apostle Paul repeatedly makes reference to “when you are assembled” (1 Cor 5:4), or “when you come together as a church” (1 Cor 11:18; cf 11:17, 33, 34; 14:23, 26). When the church gathers virtually, it is able to occupy the same time, but not the same space. At the very least, the online assembly is a poor substitute for the real thing.

      He goes on to say that while the secular civil magistrate allows for shopping for bread because it is an essential, by the same token the spiritual bread of life is a non-essential and the church needs to make sure it is not buying into this mindset of unbelief.

      • I appreciate this argument. I agree entirely that the virtual church is not the church. Virtual worship is not worship but the civil magistrate has divinely-given authority to prevent mass gatherings. I’m not an epidemiologist and I’m not qualified nor am I called to make those decisions. The magistrate asks us not to gather in buildings together. I don’t see how we can’t gather in cars and listen over the radio. Fortunately, a District Federal Court agreed.

        We should hope and pray that this thing abates and we can find a way to gather again.

    • RSC, I agree that the civil magistrate has divine authority, but when the expert/epidemiologist testimony, argument and statistics conflict with the same testimony, argument and statistics, at the very least there is room to demur. (Dr. Fauci dates back as far as AIDS, which didn’t quite fulfill his apocalyptic prophecies in that it largely decimated homosexuals and drug addicts, not the general population. Oops.)

      Much more, as Johnson points out:

      Steps can be taken to comply with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines without eliminating public services entirely. Note, I refer to official CDC guidelines, not off-the-cuff statements made during press conferences. In many cases, church services can be at least as safe as grocery stores. For example:

      Crowd density can be reduced by multiplying services. . .
      Social distancing can be achieved by roping off every other pew, urging families to sit in clusters, and requiring six or more feet between non-family members. . .
      Proper hygiene can be achieved by eliminating handshakes and hugs, by eliminating use of pew Bibles and hymnals, and putting all necessary information in disposable bulletins. . .
      High-risk persons can be discouraged from attending. Nurseries may be closed and children 4 and under kept at home to worship with their parents through the livestream.
      Sunday school and other non-essential services of the church may be cancelled.

      These steps represent (by my calculations) at least an 85% reduction in the social contacts within any given church community, a drastic cut in its regular ministry, while maintaining some semblance of its public Lord’s day services.

      We may not all agree, but the topic should be subject to open discussion and debate.

      Thank you

      • Bob,

        I am not squelch in debate am I? I am encouraging ministers to “stay in their lane.”

        I have my opinions but I don’t have that office or expertise to advise the magistrate on public health policy.

        Are there venal local pols taking advantage of the situation? Absolutely. There will be a number of court cases, after the fact, to sort out who was right and who was wrong.

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