Peace And Purity Provided By Authority: John Thomson’s Defense Of Presbyterian Church Polity (Part 12): Confessional Subscription And Doctrinal Purity

Prior to the Adopting Act of 1729, the church had only a general understanding assumed between presbyteries and individual ministers that the Westminster Standards were to be upheld. As a ‘particular’ church united together, they were not under the authority of or responsible to any higher ecclesiastical body. They had no doctrinal standard by which to measure the orthodoxy of their ministers because, Thomson wrote, “the truth was never publicly received” among them.[284] He described the young church as a defenseless “city without walls” and set out to rectify the very precarious position that it was in. [285]  He argued that as an organized body of believers joined together by a common government, they were required to exert the authority granted to them by Scripture to do what they could to prevent error.[286] Thomson presented his overture to Synod to adopt the Westminster Standards in 1728 in hopes to maintain the doctrinal purity of the church against “the ingress and spreading of dangerous errors.”[287] He also pleaded that it was not his intention to “prove an occasion of any heat or contention.” [288]

The adoption of a confession, as seen in the first chapter, was a very controversial process. This, however, was not in and of itself the most problematic aspect of what Thomson was arguing. The Westminster Confession had already been adopted in other parts of New England among the Congregationalists.[289] The extent to which Thomson thought Synod should require ministers to subscribe to them was the issue: “The problem lay in the second part of Thomson’s proposal—the demand for mandatory subscription on the part of all ministers and candidates.”[290] The same debate over subscription was taking place within the Congregational Church to the north under the ministry of Jonathan Edwards.[291] Thomson insisted upon subscription to the confessions in their entirety not only because he believed that it would protect the church, but also because he argued that “the church possessed the authority to require such doctrinal conformity from its officers.”[292] 

In the same vein as his previous arguments, he also argued that church officers maintained the authority to expound the meaning of scripture to create and adopt confessional standards. Vice versa, once they had adopted the Westminster Confession, he argued that it bound them to acknowledge the authority the church officers had exercised initially by writing, adopting, and in continually upholding it for the governing of the church and the preservation of its doctrine. In his mind, adherence to the confession was the only way to stem the tide of impending heresy. His colleague, Jonathan Dickinson, strongly disagreed with Thomson’s sentiments. Cornman argues that the central problem in the Adopting Act was the nature of the authority of “theologians and church judicatories who had constructed the subscription model.”[293]

At the opening of Synod in 1722, Dickinson preached a sermon in response to an earlier overture from George Gillespie for the adoption of the Westminster Standards. Dickinson maintained that the Scriptures themselves were the only rule of faith, not a man made confession or creed. Thomson, in his 1728 overture, argued that the adoption of the Westminster Standards by the Synod as terms of communion and as a means of maintaining doctrinal purity within the ministry of the church was sufficiently within their authority. This concept of submission to doctrinal standards could only be legitimate if the officers of the church maintained the authority to make such determinations and requirements. He also argued that the Confession could be legitimately used as terms of communion. For Thomson, the creation and adoption of confessional standards were an essential aspect of church polity, because it was an authority granted to the officers of the church for its protection. Church judicatories had both the authority to require subscription to confessional standards and they were bound to maintain, defend and promote the truth in them. First, Thomson had to defend the legitimacy of the Synod adopting the Confessions and second to defend the continual use of the confessions in the church. He responded to the arguments of Dickinson and The Apology that the adopting of a confessional standard was not a legitimate use of ecclesiastical power. In addition, he also responded to their argument against the Confession as terms of ministerial communion.

Their predicament stemmed from the fact that they did not have a seminary established by which to educate their ministers and that they were dependent upon churches abroad to supply their pulpits. He compared the arguments of Dickinson with the same argumentation used by a group of “non-subscribers” in Northern Ireland,

Our brethren’s arguments, viz. that they are all borrowed from the new-light men, or non-subscribers in the North of Ireland…the non-subscribers argued from the same topics, against the authority of the Synod, to require or enjoin subscription to our Westminster Confession and Catechisms.[294]

It was from this same region that they were expecting desperately needed pulpit supply. Thomson feared that this region would, therefore, also be a source of false doctrine and was the impetus for his overture to Synod to adopt the Westminster Standards, “Thomson was likely troubled by an emerging liberal element in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland that also opposed creedal subscription—not simply because of concerns over church power, but also because of explicit departures from the teachings of the Westminster Standards.”[295] With only a general agreement to the Westminster Confession, prior to the Adopting Act, they were vulnerable because they had no way of holding candidates for ministry accountable to those doctrines.[296] Thomson considered this predicament a very tenuous one. Writing about his relief of the unanimity with which the Synod later adopted the Westminster Confession, he expressed his original fear of pulpit supply from that region,

It was a matter of very great satisfaction to most of us, and to myself in particular, who had been, for some time before, under no small fears and perplexities of mind, lest we should be corrupted with the new schemes of doctrine, which for some time had prevailed in the North of Ireland, that being the part from whence we expected to be in great measure supplied with new hands to fill our vacancies in the ministry within the bounds of our Synod.[297] 

He was concerned about the leavening power of false doctrine being imported into the church.

Dickinson’s Puritan background may have influenced his general skepticism of strict subscription to doctrinal standards. [298] Cornman observed that Dickinson used arguments similar to those of the “English dissenting tradition.”[299] Dickinson argued that man-made creeds had the opposite effect of encouraging heresy rather than protecting the church against it and that it contributed to the excess in the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, “The imposition of a creed at Nicaea strengthened the hand of Arianism rather than eradicating it. Furthermore, the imposing of creeds ‘was both an inlet to the Papacy and a continued engine of Papal Tyranny.’”[300] He therefore also insisted that confessional subscription was contrary to the Reformation, because to “enforce subscription to a confession would make the Synod no different than the Roman Catholics or the Anglicans.”[301] Like Thomson, Dickinson also appealed to the controversy in Northern Ireland, but his interpretation was that disagreements over subscription had divided the church, “he referred to the situation in Northern Ireland where subscription had ‘consumed their glory; and this engine of division broke them in pieces.’”[302] Hart argues that Dickinson was more concerned with the problem of an “authoritative church” than with “theological fuzziness” in the their present situation and there were other means of protecting the church, “‘strict’ examination of candidates, ‘strict’ discipline of scandalous ministers, and the ‘diligent, faithful, and painful’ discharge of ministerial duties.”[303] Trinterud made the same observations of Dickinson, “The granting of more authority to the Synod…would be more likely to bring forth further evils than to bring forth reforms.”[304]     

© Tricia Howerzyl. All Rights Reserved.


[284] John Thomson, An Overture Presented to the Reverend Synod of Dissenting Ministers, Sitting in Philadelphia, in the Month of September, 1728 (Philadelphia: Samuel Keimer, 1729), 29.

[285] Ibid., 28.

[286] Ibid., 27.

[287] Ibid., 25.

[288] Ibid.

[289] Thomas H. L. Cornman, Caterpillars and Newfangled Religion, 53.

[290] Ibid.

[291] George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 177.

[292] D. G. Hart, “Old Side/New Side Schism and Reunion,” in S. Donald Fortson III, ed., Colonial Presbyterianism: Old Faith in a New Land (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2007), 162.

[293] Thomas H. L. Cornman, Caterpillars and Newfangled Religion48.

[294] John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ113-114.

[295] D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country, 43.

[296] Thomas H. L. Cornman, Caterpillars and Newfangled Religion52.

[297] John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ116.

[298] D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country43.

[299] Thomas H. L. Cornman, Caterpillars and Newfangled Religion49.

[300] Ibid.53.

[301] Ibid., 49.

[302] D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country43.

[303] Ibid.

[304] Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, 47.


Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!