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Religious Principles of the Scottish Martyrs - by Dr. Andrew Symington

Articles on the 1647 Westminster Confession of Faith

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An exhortation given by Andrew Symington.

They (the Martyrs of the seventeenth century) held the grand Protestant doctrine of the perfection and supreme authority of the Holy Scriptures, and claimed a right to read, and think, and believe, for themselves. They embraced the system of doctrine usually known in this country by the name Calvinistic; but which we would rather call apostolical, or evangelical, for they called no man master, and would submit their consciences in this matter to no authority, excepting that of God speaking in the Scriptures. The doctrines of human guilt and depravity, salvation by the cross of Christ, and by the grace of God and influences of the Holy Spirit, formed their creed, and were the basis of that pious and holy character by which they were distinguished.

They claimed a right to worship God in the institutions which he has ordained, without the interference or authority of a man. They contended for true liberty of conscience, and would not bow to receive from any human authority, ecclesiastical or civil, rites that had no sanction in the word of God. And when they had no alternative but to wrong their consciences or sacrifice their lives, they loved not their lives unto the death.

They held the exclusive supremacy of Jesus Christ in the church, and contended for the blood-chartered liberty of the church, and her independence of human authority in the early establishment of the Reformation this was a prominent feature. The Pope had assumed and exercised an authority over the church; Henry VIII in his contentions with Rome, transferred this authority to himself; and in all the contentions with the house of Stuart, this was a main point. The independence of the church was boldly asserted by Henderson in the Assembly in Glasgow, 1638. The reformers and sufferers contended for the liberty of the ministers, the courts, and the members of the church; and would not bow to prelatic more than to popish authority, nor to a civil ecclesiastic supremacy. They were persuaded of the scriptural authority of the Presbyterian polity, but held it in its unfettered freedom and independence; and viewed with jealousy every encroachment of human authority, as not only opposed to their liberty, but as reflecting dishonor upon their Saviour. Fidelity to this truth, as interfering with the taking of oaths, in which a supremacy over the church was recognized, formed one chief ground of the sufferings of those troublous times.

The martyrs held the divine institution of magistracy, and of the scripture precepts in the erection of civil government and in the appointment of governors. They held that persons invested with authority should not only be persons of ability and moral character, but fearers of God, and professors of the true religion. No class of men were more jealous of the liberty of the church than they were; yet they held that an obligation lay upon a nation, by their rulers, to favor and support religion; viewing this as due, in the first place, to the Prince of the Kings of the earth, whom all nations are to serve, and as, in the second place, forming the only sure basis of national virtue, union, peace, and prosperity. They would not submit to an Erastian supremacy, placing the church in the subjection to the State; nor did they assume an authority over the State, requiring its subjection to the church. They drew the distinction between civil and ecclesiastical authority, with judicious exactness; and, without confounding these two things, required their co-operation, each in its own sphere, as co-ordinate powers under one Supreme Divine authority. They did not confound the constitutional exercise of civil authority, in giving facilities and protection to true religion, with the base prostitution of it to State or personal purposes. They found things civil and religious recognized in the same divine law, connected in the complex nature and relations of man, related also in the necessary connections of things, and combined in the corruptions against which they testified; and be it right or wrong, such is the fact, that the reformers did not exclude religion from national concern. But it is due to them to say, that nothing was more remote from their minds than the idea of propagating religion with the sword. Called, as they were, in their perilous circumstances, to assume the attitude of defense, they disavowed and abhorred the propagation of religion by other than the weapons of scripture, argument, prayer, and example. In language as strong as could be employed by those who accuse them of sanguinary principles, they declared, “We positively disavow, as horrid murder, the killing of any, because of a different persuasion and opinion from us, albeit some have invidiously cast this odious calumny upon us.”

Besides, the martyrs held the great desirableness of union and uniformity in the profession of religion. They testified against sectarianism, or the violation of the unity of the church, by cutting or dividing it into insulated sections. God is one; religion, as a principle in the heart, is one; the word of God is one; Christ is one; and his law is one. The law of Christ is not an undeterminate thing; it is definite, and is distinguished by a universality and simplicity adapted to the situation of the church in every circumstance, and providing for its visible unity. The reformers were unionist upon principle, and on the largest scale too. They sought union upon the basis of truth. They held the doctrine of the unity of the church, and endeavored its exemplification. They wished, also, by good laws and scripturally qualified rulers, the union and prosperity of the kingdom. And it is not to be denied that, without making any compromise of the authority and freedom of either, they sought a harmonious co-operation and reciprocation between Church and State, in subserviency to godliness and honesty. Nor were their pious wishes confined to their own loved country. They looked abroad. They sought the enlargement of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, and the peace and tranquility of all Christian kingdoms and commonwealths; the Christianization and union of all the nations of the earth. But they would not sacrifice truth for union; nor did they stumble at the impossibility of obtaining uniformity in the profession of religion. The event showed that they were premature in their expectations. Their aim, however, was excellent; and predictions assure us that the evil of division will be healed in the arrival of a day in which “there shall be one Lord and his name One.”

The martyrs also held covenanting to be a fit and divinely authorized means of consolidating union in a church and a nation, and of giving security to the interests of religion in both. They found confederation in the transactions of mankind; they viewed it to be based on the moral law; they saw it largely exemplified in the history of the Jews; they read prophetic intimations of the practice; and they had before them the example of the reformed churches. Besides, they were, in a measure, driven into covenanting by the plottings of their enemies. At the period of the first reformation, the National Covenant of Scotland had been prepared and gone into, when the jealousy of the nation had been awakened by the interception of letters from Rome, granting a dispensation to the Roman Catholics to profess the reformed tenets for a time; with a view, no doubt, to the ultimate overthrow of the reformed cause. The covenant united the country, and proved a means of preserving the reformed religion from the peril to which it was exposed, from the machinations of enemies. At a subsequent period, this covenant was again sworn as applying to Prelacy as well as Popery; and a Solemn League and Covenant was subsequently framed to preserve the reformed religion in Scotland, and extend it in “England and Ireland.” These deeds formed, in those days, the Magna Charta of civil and religious liberty; and were held in the highest veneration by those who contended against the overthrow of the reformation. The offence in which these deeds were held by the enemies of the reformation, may be learned from the public odium, attempted to be thrown upon them by their condemnation and burning. But the martyrs held fast their obligation, because of that scriptural reformation which they embraced, and which they had been the means, so seasonably and efficiently, under God, of preserving.

The martyrs also held the duty of resisting authority, when it violated divine and constitutional rights, and set at nought all attempts at reformation. No race of men regarded superiors with greater respect than they did; and this too from a conscientious principle. They were not rash to resist authority, even when it was abused. They exercise patience, remonstrated, and employed every means of reformation. But authority may be abused, and power may be turned to oppression and persecution; and abuse may reach a point when resistance becomes a duty, and if ever it reached this point in any case, it was in the days of the late martyrs. Then, after setting, with much patience and long-suffering, the example of obedience for conscience sake, they taught by their example, the awful but necessary lesson of resistance for conscience sake; giving the doctrine of passive obedience and non-resistance to the winds.

Such are some of the leading principles of the martyrs. In contending for these principles, they viewed them in a threefold connection, as will appear from their writings and testimonies. They held them, first, because founded on the Bible, to which they made their appeal as the alone supreme authority. They were attached to these principles, in the second place, as entering into the ecclesiastic and civil constitutions of the country, after it had in the goodness of God obtained reformation; which will account for their frequent reference to Acts of Assembly, and of Parliament, to vindicate themselves from the charge of sedition and rebellion. And they adhered to these principles, again, as having been embraced in the covenants, of whose obligation they had a strong sense in their consciences.

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