Peace And Purity Provided By Authority: John Thomson’s Defense Of Presbyterian Church Polity (Part 13): The Adopting Act

As detailed in the first chapter, controversy over interpretations of what took place at the Adopting Act of 1729 abound. Thomson interpreted the events to support a strict form of subscription. He suspected that only the first half of the Adopting Act, the preliminary paragraphs, were printed and distributed. In this section of the Adopting Act, there was a call for exceptions of those present to doctrines not “essential or necessary” in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. He argued that this was why particular congregations, like Paxton and Derry, were confused with the remaining latitude of taking exceptions to the Confession and Catechisms. Hart argues that the Adopting Act itself did not delineate the extent of subscription. “In effect, those present at Synod subscribed to the Westminster Standards—that is what the Adopting Act properly indicated. Only in the preliminary paragraphs did Synod address the matter of how the American church should employ the Westminster Standards as a form of subscription.”[305] These preliminary paragraphs were where the confusion lay for those congregations that were concerned over the latitude of subscription. Thomson argued that this confusion was fixed the following years when the latitude was taken away and their subscription to the confessions, except for the articles regarding the civil magistrate, was reiterated, “I suppose that what our brethren value the printed declaration, which they mention, most for, is the too great latitude expressed in it, which fault was amended in the following year, when that latitude was taken away as dangerous.”[306] His understanding was that Synod ultimately had the power to determine what were valid exceptions and that they had determined that those articles concerning the civil magistrate were the only suitable exceptions.

Trinterud argued that this carefully crafted compromise which provided latitude to take exceptions to the Confession and Catechisms was what Dickinson was advocating. Dickinson argued that the Reformation simply did not support subscription to forms, “An unqualified subscription to these standards was not only to demand what their own authors refused, but to demand an implicit submission to ecclesiastical authority, in other words, to deny the whole basis of the Reformation, Lutheran and Calvinistic.” [307] Dickinson advocated subscription to a “system of doctrine.”[308] 

Hart identifies a key inherent problem in the wording of the Adopting Act that exposes what may have contributed to the later tensions over the authority of Synod to require subscription. He argues that the preamble to the Adopting Act itself contained language that seemed to contradict the very authority that the Synod exercised in adopting the standards and the authority prescribed in the standards themselves.[309] The first paragraph affirmed “liberty of conscience” which reflected the anti-subscriptionist view of Dickinson. Hart argues that it was unclear whether they understood the contradiction, “In announcing their loyalty to the Westminster Standards they were also affirming a notion of church power that the preamble to the Adopting Act apparently denied.” [310] The “notion of church power” that Hart refers to was what Westminster Confession chapter 31 article 2 affirmed, that the rulings of Synod were “to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his Word.’”[311] 

Herndon, however, argued that to “disclaim all legislative power and authority in the church” did not mean to deny the Synod’s authority to “enact basic law of the church,” for that would be to deny the very thing it was doing. Instead, it denied Synod the power to “make laws binding the conscience of members on matters of truth and duty.”[312] He saw no contradiction in the wording, only an affirmation that the Synod had the right to rule according to the authority granted to it by Scripture, without unnecessary binding of conscience. Based on the arguments posed in The Apology and those made by Dickinson in response to Thomson, there was still confusion as to what this “liberty of conscience” meant in light of subscription and other rulings of Synod.

Trinterud argued that Thomson’s interpretation of the Adopting Act was a reinterpretation of the events in order to support his views of strict subscription.[313] Thomson’s understanding of what took place in the Adopting Act and subsequent clarifications, revealed his understanding of the role of Synod’s authority in determining what was suitable for subscription. Contrary to Dickinson and his likeminded colleagues, Thomson argued that Synod could adopt and enforce a confessional standard for the church and require a strict subscription to them for ministerial candidates.  

The Authority of the Church Judicatories

Thomson responded to opposition to the adoption of a confession prior to the Adopting Act of 1729 in his overture in 1728. A decade later he also responded to the opposition of enforcing subscription in The Apology by the New Brunswick Presbytery. Thomson had to defend first the legitimacy of the Synod’s role in adopting the Confessions and also to defend the continual use of the confessions in the church. Dickinson’s arguments were centered on why adopting a confessional standard was not a legitimate use of ecclesiastical power. In addition, The Apology argued against the Confession as terms of ministerial communion.

First, Thomson defended the authority of Synod to compose and adopt a confession for the church. Both Dickinson and Thomson were motivated by a desire to protect the purity of the ministry, however, they differed on what they considered to be a legitimate exercise of ecclesiastical authority by Synod.[314] Dickinson’s sermon presented to Synod in 1722 highlighted some of his objections to the authority of Synod to adopt of a confession. Dickinson wrote, “The appropriate test of orthodoxy could be determined only through the presbytery’s examination of the candidate and his life…to grant the Synod more authority than Christ had given the Church would be contrary to the original intent of the Westminster divines.”[315] Dickinson rejected the creation of confessional standards and subscription to them as a “law-making faculty that we are not entitled to.”[316] 

Similar to the argument used by his colleagues in The Apology regarding the creation of rules by Synod, he argued that the perfection of the Scriptures prohibited the need for confessional standards. He argued that no additional rules should be added to the Scriptures for it was a “bold invasion of Christ’s Royal Power, and a rude reflection upon his wisdom and faithfulness.”[317] He referred to the creation and enforcement of confessional standards as “royal power” which was not granted to the officers of the church.[318] Dickinson rejected the reasons which Thomson used to explain why it was so expedient to require subscription, “the fair colors of apostolic tradition, antiquity, order and decency, the band of union and communion, the well government or greater good of the church, or whatever other pretence.”[319] He responded to this reasoning by arguing that Scripture was a “complete rule of doctrine, worship and discipline.”[320] Another similar argument Dickinson used for The Apology was that the officers of the church were not infallible so their interpretations could by no means be made the standard of truth, “But then these having no claim to infallibility, can have no authority to impose their interpretations; nor is any man absolutely obliged to receive them, any farther than they appear to him just and true.”[321] 

Both Dickinson and The Apology objected to the authority of Synod to make binding acts, such as subscription to a confession. Thomas Cornman recognized the similarity of the arguments between these two groups, but failed to identify the real underlying problem—both were denying the authority of Synod to take such actions, “Dickinson based his arguments against subscription upon the same underlying positions, as did Gilbert Tennent in his later opposition to educational standards imposed by the Old Side members of the Synod. External standards or controls could not reveal the heart or test the experiential religion of the minister.”[322] The fundamental issue was not external standards, but rather if Synod indeed had the authority to impose such external standards. Dickinson acknowledged the usefulness of confessional standards, but rejected the authority of Synod to require them, “Though some plain and comprehensive creed or confession of faith may be useful and necessary since the worst heresies may take shelter under the express words of Scripture. Yet we are by no means to force these credenda, upon any of differing sentiments.”[323] Peter Wallace argues that Tennent’s opposition to Synod’s authority and to subscription in the Apology was a later development and did not exist in 1729 at the time of the Adopting Act itself,

William St. and Gilbert signed the Adopting Act in 1729, John subscribed later that year in the ‘strictest’ presbytery, New Castle, and William Sr. and William Jr. both voted for the Act of 1736, showing that they had no qualms with Thomson’s subscription policy. There were no significant divisions on doctrine or government between the Tennents and Thomson until after the revivals started. Therefore I would suggest that as the New Brunswick men began objecting to several particular decisions of the Synod which they believed were prejudiced against the revivals, they began to develop looser views of polity for pragmatic reasons—views which evaporated as soon as they had their own Synod.[324]

Interestingly, Tennent did not originally oppose the Adopting Act, but later questioned subscription in light of Synod’s authority in response to the controversy being addressed in The Apology. It seems as though Tennent’s opposition to the authority of Synod to impose subscription developed as he questioned Synod’s authority to make other binding rules that he did not approve of.

In his overture to the Synod in 1728, Thomson provided a polemic for the use and adoption of confessional standards. Thomson argued that the same authority that church judicatories maintained to interpret and apply Scripture to individual cases was the same authority that was exercised by those who composed the Confessions and Catechisms and by the Synod to then adopt them. As discussed earlier, Thomson responded to the accusation that Synod was assuming a legislative power by arguing that since it would be impossible for Scripture to address every case individually that would arise, it was necessary that church officers interpret and apply Scripture to individual cases.[325] In addition, it was also necessary that they adopt confessions and creeds that interpret and explain the precepts found in Scripture, “the general rule of the word is authoritatively explained and applied.”[326] 

© Tricia Howerzyl. All Rights Reserved.

The Series:


[305] D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country45.

[306] John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ68.

[307] Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, 50.

[308] Ibid.

[309] D. G. Hart, Seeking a Better Country46.

[310]. Ibid.

[311]. Ibid.

[312] John Goodwin Herndon, John Thomson12.

[313] Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, 49.

[314] Thomas H. L. Cornman, Caterpillars and Newfangled Religion59.

[315] Ibid., 54.

[316] Jonathan Dickinson, “A Sermon Preached at the Opening of Synod at Philadelphia: September 19, 1722” in The Presbyterian Enterpriseed. Maurice W. Armstrong, Lefferts A. Loetscher, and Charles A. Anderson (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1955), 27.   

[317] Ibid., 26.  

[318] Ibid.

[319] Jonathan Dickinson, “A Sermon Preached at the Opening of Synod at Philadelphia: September 19, 1722,” 26.

[320] Ibid.

[321] Jonathan Dickinson, “A Sermon Preached at the Opening of Synod at Philadelphia: September 19, 1722,” 27.   

[322] Thomas H. L. Cornman, Caterpillars and Newfangled Religion58.

[323] Jonathan Dickinson, “A Sermon Preached at the Opening of Synod at Philadelphia: September 19, 1722,” 27.

[324] Peter Wallace, “Old Light on the New Side: John Thomson and Gilbert Tennent on the Great Awakening,” Peter Wallace, [accessed June 6, 2010].

[325] John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ60.

[326] Ibid.


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