Peace And Purity Provided By Authority: John Thomson’s Defense Of Presbyterian Church Polity (Part 14): Terms Of Communion

As a particular church, Thomson argued that the officers of the church needed to exercise their authority to adopt a confession for their communion. As a Synod not formally associated with any other church, the Synod could adopt a set of standards for their particular body in their charge, “Synod would, by an act of their own, publicly and authoritatively adopt the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, for the public confession of our faith, as we are a particular organized church.”[327] Adoption of the Westminster Standards would be an expedient action by the officers of the church who were obligated to take this action, as it was necessary “as an ecclesiastical judicature of Christ, clothed with ministerial authority to act in concert, in behalf of truth and in opposition to error.”[328] Thomson considered their present position necessitating it.

Here is an instance of when secondary literature seems to misinterpret the use and institution of creeds and confessions by “subscriptionists” like Thomson. Trinterud described the “subscriptionist party” as arguing that creeds were “a final condensation of the truths contained in Scripture” and that they “thought that authoritative and correct creeds would lead men to the truth, in the sense of rational truth about God, and so would lead to correct concepts about God and man.”[329] He described Dickinson as insisting that creeds were only “but one of the many helps available for the study of the Bible” and that they “point beyond themselves to Scripture.”[330] He then argued that Dickinson was using an “old stock argument that all Reformed theologians had used against the Romanists and the Anglicans.”[331] Based on Thomson’s arguments found in his overture, the confessional standards were not a “final condensation” of Scripture, but a tool for interpretation and application of Scripture. Trinterud took Dickinson’s argument one step further and argued that because the New Castle presbytery did not require men to accept the Bible as an infallible rule of faith and life, “Had they gained their point, the creed, as in Roman Catholic usage, would have become the final authoritative statement of the meaning of the Bible.”[332]

Second, Thomson defended the authority of Synod to enforce the confession once it was adopted. Part of The Apology’s objection was whether Synod had the authority to demand that candidates subscribe to the Confession for ordination. In response to the Apology, Thomson rhetorically asked the question “Did the Westminster assembly assume a legislative power in composing our confession, catechisms and directory and in obliging all their members to submit?”[333] Thomson appealed to the New Brunswick Presbytery’s original consensus regarding the Adopting Act to defend the later acts of Synod. Similar to those who composed the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, the Synod in turn, as a judicatory body, could apply these rules to cases that came before them.[334] If his opponents accepted the Adopting Act of 1729 and the Synod had justly adopted the Westminster Standards as the rule of the church, then he was only asking for Synod to retain that same authority in continuing to make rules according to Scripture. “All our protesting brethren have agreed and conformed to the adopting act in all the parts and branches of it, in profession at least, and thereby have acknowledged the authority by which it was enacted; which is the very authority we plead for, and no other.”[335] If Synod could adopt the Westminster Standards, argued Thomson, then they had the authority to make additional rules. He reminded the New Brunswick Presbytery of the church polity they had adopted in the Westminster Standards. He insisted upon the continual use of these standards as terms of communion based on the original Adopting Act of 1729 that they all had agreed to, “Were not the minority or negatives obliged to observe the rules or directions for worship, ordination and government, if they meant or intended to enjoy membership with the Presbyterian Church which was then established by these forms of doctrine and directory of worship and government?”[336] 

Thomson acknowledged that because there might exist members of the church who held to erroneous doctrines in secret, the confession was not a foolproof means to maintain orthodoxy.[337] Coupled with proper church polity, however, subscription to a confession would help to defend the church from doctrinal error. In addition to adopting the confessions, the church would need to be vigilant, “by searching them out, discovering them, and setting a mark upon them, whereby they may be known, and so may not have it in their power to deceive.”[338] Thomson argued that it was the duty of every Christian, especially ministers with flocks in their charge, to defend the truth and “to endeavor to perpetuate and propagate it unto posterity, pure and uncorrupt.”[339] 

Terms of Communion

Therefore, as an exercise of the authority of the officers of the church in Synod, argued Thomson, the confession served as a valid means to protect the purity of the doctrine of the church. This, in addition, provided more objective terms of communion. With Tennent’s sermon “The Dangers of an Unconverted Ministry” in mind, he argued that without the objective standards of a confession, the church would be at the whim of the opinions of individuals.

Dickinson rejected compulsory subscription to the Confession as terms of communion. He argued that the confessional standards should not bar anyone from the ministry that would not be barred from salvation, “We may not so much as shut out of communion, any such dissenters, as we can charitably hope Christ won’t shut out of heaven: but should open the doors of the church as wide as Christ opens the gates of heaven; and receive one another, as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.”[340] In a response to Thomson’s overture, Dickinson announced his ultimate fear that subscription to a confession would exclude many capable men from the ministry while failing to actually keep out unfit ministers, “Though subscription may shut the door of church-communion against many serious and excellent servants of Christ who conscientiously scruple it, yet it’s never like to detect hypocrites, nor keep concealed heretics out of the church.”[341] 

Proposition four and five of The Apology addressed their objection to the use of confessional standards as terms of communion as well. They rejected the power of Synod to demand anything more than the main points of doctrine for ministerial communion,

the laws of Christ oblige them to receive to Christian communion all those that were found in the main points of faith and regular in life, although they err in circumstantial or lesser points; and to ministerial communion all those that have the qualifications which the king of the church requires in his word.[342] 

They argued that demanding more than was necessary would skew church discipline. If this were the case, they feared that “the seamless coat of Christ is rent and torn into almost an infinite number of pieces.”[343] Thomson acknowledged that there were many points of doctrine in the Westminster Confession, such as election, reprobation and predestination, that were not “fundamental” or “immediately practical,” but that they were essential to the system of doctrine that stood and fell together, “that I know not what any other articles would avail, that could be retained without it.”[344] In light of Dickinson and The Apology’s arguments, Thomson disagreed that individuals could differ on any part of the system of doctrine found in the Confession without causing damage to the whole.

In response to The ApologyThomson argued that both the Confessions and Catechisms and the acts of Synod were suitable terms of ministerial communion because both were ministerial applications of Scripture. He argued that there were various other terms of communion prior to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, such as the Apostle’s Creed and that Synod justly added to these as the situation needed,

There are many articles, propositions or doctrines in our confession of faith about fundamentals, which everyone will own to contain just terms of communion, which yet are not expressly or in terms contained in the word, or the apostles creed, and the receiving and owning of them are now justly made terms of communion…and yet this is no argument against the assembly’s enlarging the form of our confession or articles of our faith, and terms of communion therein contained, according as the case and state of the church, in relation to the errors to be guarded against, did require: even so there are many articles of discipline and government, which in their now form are justly made terms of communion, being comprehended, as to their matter and design, in the general rules of the Word; and yet before these articles were thought of, as to their present form, it was but just and reasonable to receive persons into communion, Christian or ministerial, without them…”[345]

If the argument of The Apology was that Synod was adding extra scriptural terms of communion by demanding examination of candidates for ministry, then those elements in the confessions that were not expressly given in Scripture would be extra scriptural as well. Thomson was appealing to their original concession to the Adopting Act.

Thomson warned about the danger of arbitrary terms of communion that could take the place of confessional standards. Writing in 1741, Thomson looked back over the controversy of the last decade and reminded the authors of The Apology of the danger of non-confessional terms of communion. Thomson argued that they had fixed non-confessional terms of communion by accusing their fellow ministers of being unregenerate because they did not support the ‘mighty work of God’. He demonstrated that they soon denounced those things which they had previously so adamantly supported, “They now publicly declaim and declare against crying out and falling down in public worship, which not many months ago they magnified as the mighty work of God, and called us Pharisee-preachers, enemies to the work of God, because we expressed the same sentiments which they themselves now publish for truth.” [346] Eventually, those in support of the revivals and the idea of assurance being something visibly noticeable to fellow Christians and to one’s self, now had come back to a confessional understanding of conversion, “again, they now publicly preach that a person may be all his days without assurance, and yet be saved; that he may have the Spirit of God working in him, and not know it to be the Spirit of God; whereas a few months ago, they all with one mouth, as it were, declared, that every true convert is and must be sensible of his own gracious state; yea, be able to tell and declare the time and manner of his conversion. If this be not to alter and change sentiments like the chameleon and weather cock, let the reader judge.”[347] They had made a doctrine not present in the Confession a term of communion and had denounced fellow ministers as unregenerate as a result. Shortly after, they corrected their sentiments and began advocating an understanding of conversion closer to the understanding of the Confession.

According to Thomson’s arguments, 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 the authority of church judicatories such as Synod. In light of the impending influence of non-subscribers from North Ireland, Thomson eagerly advocated the adoption and subscription of the Westminster Standards for the Presbyterian Church. In the light of Thomson’s understanding of the authority of church judicatories stood his advocacy of subscription. Subscription to doctrinal standards could only be legitimate if the officers of the church maintained the authority to enforce them. He saw this as a key aspect of the governance of the church and the responsibility of the officers.

© Tricia Howerzyl. All Rights Reserved.

The Series:


[327]. 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), 31.

[328]. Ibid.

[329] Leonard J. Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, 51.

[330] Ibid.

[331] Ibid.

[332] Ibid., 45.

[333] John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ67.

[334] Ibid.61.

[335] Ibid.77.

[336] Ibid.

[337] John Goodwin Herndon, John Thomson13.

[338] John Thomson, 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), 26-27.

[339] Ibid., 26.

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

[341] Jonathan Dickinson, Remarks Upon a Discourse Intitled an Overture, Presented to the Reverend Synod of Dissenting Ministers sitting in Philadelphia, in the Month of September, 1728 (New York: J. Peter Zinger, 1729), 12.

[342] John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ83.

[343] Ibid.

[344] John Thomson, 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), 31.

[345] John Thomson, Government of the Church of Christ85.

[346] Ibid.86-87.

[347] Ibid., 87.


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One comment

  1. I am thoroughly enjoying this historical forensic analysis of an important (and persisting problem) in those who call themselves Presbyterian. While my bent in this particular debate has been on the New Side, I have concluded three things: 1) no church or fellowship of churches, should begin without first having a confession; 2) the same group must also agree on a method for modifying said confession; 3) full subscription to the confession by the leaders present and future is required.

    The second observation is that no confession should be adopted that contains any non-essential elements. Better to have a short and solid confession that believers can bind themselves to without reservation, than to have a broad confession with an admixture of essentials and adiaphora.

    The problem described in this story seems to have been that this effort came after the fellowship, churches and synod were all in communion together. So introducing a confession, introducing subscription, were rightly viewed as the beginning of a papist trend.
    Better to start again fresh, with brothers who agree BEFORE yoking themselves together.

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