A note on the Formula, Liberty of Conscience and the Declaratory Act

A guest post by Andrew Smith.

In 1930, the minister J.A. Asher and the elder J.S. Butler of the Presbytery of Hawke’s Bay supported an overture from the Presbytery to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand. It read:

Whereas this Presbytery of Hawke’s Bay, being of the opinion that Question 2, appointed to be asked of elders on the occasion of their ordination to the office, having reference to the Westminster Confession of Faith, has given rise to considerable difficulty; has resulted in men declining to accept the office of eldership, who have been in every way qualified for such office, to the detriment of the interests of our Church; hereby overtures the General Assembly that Question 2 be omitted from the questions in connection with the ordination of elders.

An examination of the Year Book of the period shows that Question 2, asked of all office-bearers of the Presbyterian Church of the time reads: ‘Do you sincerely own and believe the system contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith; and do you acknowledge the said doctrine as expressing the sense in which you understand the Holy Scriptures; and will you constantly maintain and defend the same, and the purity of worship in accordance therewith?’

Perhaps some laymen being ordained to office found this question too much to ask. Even in the early parts of the twentieth century, the Westminster Confession, a document written in dense legal language several centuries old, was too impenetrable for them to answer Question 2 in good conscience. Unlike the Bible it had no ‘revised standard version’. Rather than omitting Question 2, the General Assembly moved to revise the questions for the ordination of elders. At the same time the Church of Scotland was proceeding in the same direction and the Presbyterian Church of New Zealand chose to wait on the parent church to create a new formula and adopted a similar one with questions replacing the Formula of Subscription in 1936. The new form of the formula read:

I believe the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith contained in the Westminster Confession of Faith and other subordinate standards of the Church. I acknowledge the Presbyterian government of this Church to be agreeable to the Word of God, and promise that I will submit thereto and concur therewith. I promise to observe the order of worship and the administration of all public ordinances as the same are or may be allowed in this Church.

The formula was not amended again until the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand in 2010 to read:

I believe in the Word of God in Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments and the fundamental doctrines of the Christian Faith contained in the Kupu Whakapono and Commentary, the Westminster Confession of Faith and other subordinate standards of this Church. I accept that liberty of conviction is recognised in this Church but only on such points as do not enter into the fundamental doctrines of Christian Faith contained in the Scriptures and subordinate standards. I acknowledge the Presbyterian government of this Church to be agreeable to the Word of God and promise to submit to it. I promise to observe the order and administration of public worship as allowed in this Church.

The General Assembly carried the motion that the Formula be reworded as above. While it was sent to the presbyteries and church councils, consideration to report back at the 2012 General Assembly it was adopted ad interim. There was some debate in the Assembly. My feeling is that the General Assembly did not compare the old and new versions of the Formula and that the new version has some innovations on which there could be improvements.

Firstly if the phrase in the Word of God in Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments needs to be added to the Formula then I think it should come after the subordinate standards. As it reads it conflates the authority of the Scriptures with that of the subordinate standards. While placing the Scriptures as pre-eminent is appealing, placing it as our ultimate authority is much clearer. Without further research, which probably goes back to the Church of Scotland’s version of the Formula, I suspect that the earlier generation decided that not placing the Scriptures here avoided controversy. Their intention is not without merit.

Secondly I suggest that the word conviction should be amended to read conscience. Liberty of Conscience has a long history in the Presbyterian Church going back to the Declaratory Act. It was first passed by the Church of Scotland in 1892, then by the then independent Synod of Otago and Southland in 1893, and by the united Presbyterian Church of New Zealand in 1901. Reading the Declaratory Act it seems evident that the church of this period had problems accepting that God elected some for salvation and some for damnation, especially those who died before the age of decision-making. This is an age when literature suggested that children came from heaven and if they died before a certain age that they could join the angels. Conscience has precedence in the Church’s terminology, conviction does not. To me conviction suggests belief or opinion while conscience is the prompting of the Holy Spirit. That is a significant difference.

Finally, I would strike out the words but only. To paraphrase the Gospels, what comes out of a butt goes into the sewer! But is a conjunction, a balancing word that contrasts a negative clause with a positive one, the negative clause coming first and the positive clause after the conjunction. Liberty of conviction is in the negative clause of the sentence, and the fundamental doctrines of Christian faith in the positive. The sentence reads like a big stick to police ordained ministers and elders. Agreement with this sentence suggests that too much liberty of conviction or conscience cannot be trusted. Conform or else we will have you thrown out of office! Removing it would encourage more faith in our leadership.

I believe that Asher and Butler’s overture in 1930 remains a challenge for the modern church and we still don’t know the answer. We have the Subordinate Standards of the Church. Our shared knowledge of them remains shallow. They are beyond our grasp of understanding: the words are too clever, too pretty. We might give more consideration to the Terms and Conditions taking out membership on Facebook than we do to the Formula of Ordination and to our Confessions. It lies in the too hard basket.

One thought on “A note on the Formula, Liberty of Conscience and the Declaratory Act

  1. Having just ordained 2 new elders last Sunday the concerns Andrew raises are fresh in my mind.

    I find that elders can grasp what this is about – and generally do take it seriously – the congregation however are often amused by the language and struggle to follow what it means.

    I did not like the wording, especially the opening line “I believe in the Word of God…” I agree Andrew it does not fit well at this point, and with it there it is cumbersome to read. I would leave it out all together.

    ‘Conviction’ vs ‘Conscience’ you make an interesting point. I actually like ‘conviction’ in that for me it implies that someone has thought through their belief, with the Spirit’s guiding I trust and have come to an informed, reasoned, and spirit directed understanding.

    Like

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