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Rationalism and Dissenting Ecclesiology

Geoff Chang June 3, 2024

The excerpt below is taken from my forthcoming book, The Army of God: Spurgeon’s Vision for the Church with Christian Focus. Nineteenth-century rationalism elevated human reason above the authority of Scripture. What was the effect of this movement on the ecclesiology of dissenting churches? Here, I draw out three results: the removal of a credal basis for churches and church associations, the removal of Scriptural arguments for church polity, and the rise of ecclesiological pragmatism.

Learn more about The Army of God and Spurgeon’s defense of Reformed and Baptist ecclesiology here.

One way rationalism eroded the ecclesiology of dissenting churches was by challenging any credal basis for churches and church associations. The use of creeds among dissenters, especially Congregationalists, had always been controversial.[1] As those who had left the Church of England, where the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer were imposed on all its ministers, dissenters understood that such an imposition was meaningless without the minister’s voluntary subscription. John Owen, in the preface to the Savoy Declaration, states that when it comes to the imposition of creeds, “whatever is of force or constraint in matters of this nature, causeth them to degenerate from the name and nature of Confessions, and turns them from being Confessions of Faith, into Exactions and Impositions of Faith.”[2]

Owen’s caution was not an objection to the use of creeds; he still defended their necessity for “[expressing] the substance of the same common salvation or unity of faith.” But in the 19th century, this caution against the misuse of creeds changed into an objection against the use of creeds at all. As people and churches wrestled with the questions and doubts of rationalism, many began to move away from doctrines as articulated in the historic creeds. Increasingly, the cry of the day was for toleration rather than dogma. Convictions could still be held on an individual basis, but tolerance of individual convictions trumped any common creed, even the historic creeds of Christianity. Robinson’s vision for a church that transcended denominational divisions included members holding to a variety of creeds: “some of its Christian people may receive the Athanasian, and some the Nicene creed; others do not fully approve of either, or may flatter themselves with the notion that they believe both.”[3]

In all this, the revolt was not merely against the use of creeds, but “against the whole idea that a Church as such should have common beliefs.”[4] The strategy of the New Theology was not to make their teaching the new orthodoxy, but rather to escape from theology altogether by removing credal statements as a source of accountability in churches and associations. Without a theological basis for churches, ethics now became the source of unity. In his vision of the Church of the Future, P. T. Forsyth envisioned the church united around Christian character that comprehended all God’s family. The basis for communion was “the saving faith which bound men to God… unsupplemented by ‘essential truths.’”[5] These ideas would spark conflict between conservatives and liberals in the Leicester Conference Controversy in 1877 for the Congregationalists and the Downgrade Controversy in 1887-1888 for the Baptists.[6]

The other effect of rationalism on dissenting ecclesiology was the removal of any Scriptural basis for church polity. Historically, Independents and Presbyterians believed that their particular forms of church government, church officers, membership, discipline, and many other aspects of church polity, were all based on New Testament teaching and example. But by the 1870s, historical criticism caused many to question whether early church practices ought to be binding for all time. Dissenters were glad to employ historical criticism against the Oxford Movement’s argument for de jure Episcopacy, showing how the New Testament church could not have held such a position. But “with surprising suddenness Nonconformists, especially Congregationalists, decided that they must abandon their claim to be the sole inheritors of apostolic practice.”[7] In his lecture to the Congregational Union in 1897, John Brown declared, “We maintain that our Lord has nowhere authoritatively prescribed one definite organization for the Church He instituted.”[8] C. A. Scott, a Presbyterian professor of New Testament, took it one step further by arguing that “in the organization and government of the Church… God has left men to the guidance of their reason, sanctified and illumined by the Holy Spirit.” Therefore,

The various forms of Church government which have actually been evolved correspond in fact with the forms of political organization familiar to us—pure democracy, representative democracy, oligarchy, and autocracy. And to none of them can we admit impediment; for none of them can we claim a legitimacy which makes illegitimate the rest. Each type, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Anglican, or Papal, has arisen through special emphasis being laid on some one feature in the organization of the primitive Church.[9]

For Scott, all forms of church polity found some biblical justification, and none could be argued as unbiblical.

With the biblical supports of church polity removed, ecclesiology now became a matter of expediency rather than conviction. The great concern of the age was to establish the Kingdom of God by improving society and creating a new brotherhood among men. R. J. Campbell, Joseph Parker’s successor in London’s City Temple, puts it this way,

The true church of Christ in any and every age consists of those and those only who are trying like their Master to make the world better and gladder and worthier of God… The church exists to make the world a kingdom of God, and to fill it with His love. No greater mistake could be made than to estimate the church of Jesus by ecclesiastical squabbles and divisions.[10]

According to Campbell’s definition, any group of Christians working together for social good might well be considered a church. And, on the other hand, as Fairbarn put it, “churches that do not work for these ends are not churches of Christ’s religion.”[11] Under the New Theology, churches are defined not by any ontological understanding but primarily a functional one. Regardless of denominational background, the churches that worked towards this mission “by fittest means, and so to best issues, are the most Christian of churches.”[12] This pragmatic spirit was prevalent among all evangelicals but was especially evident among the Baptists.[13]

Against the backdrop of the church’s mission, all debates about church polity and ecclesiology were viewed as mere squabbles and distractions. Churches were to lay aside their differences and partner together for the betterment of society. Associations were to unite with one another to increase effectiveness. By the 20th century, discussion over matters of polity had largely ceased among dissenters, except when dealing with those in the established church. Some ecclesiastical forms from previous generations remained, but the theology behind them was forgotten. Church membership “was not consciously repudiated but in some quarters it ceased to be understood.”[14] Subsequently, membership rolls became inflated as the practice of church discipline faded.[15] Church meetings, once the hallmark of congregationalism, now took on a secular character, devoted to the “business” of the church and devoid any spiritual understanding.

[1] The Salters’ Hall Controversy in 1719 is an early example of dissenters wrestling with the use of creeds following the Act of Toleration of 1689. See Jesse F. Owens, “The Salters’ Hall Controversy: Heresy, Subscription, or Both?” Perichoresis 20.1 (2022), 35-52.

[2] John Owen, Preface, Savoy Declaration.

[3] Robinson, Biblical Studies, 258.

[4] Grant, Free Churchmanship in England, 117

[5] Hopkins, Nonconformity’s Romantic Generation, 107-109.

[6] For an account of these two controversies, see Mark Hopkins, Nonconformity’s Romantic Generation: Evangelical and Liberal Theologies in Victorian England (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004).

[7] Grant, Free Churchmanship in England, 124-125

[8] John Brown, Apostolical Succession in the Light of History and Fact (London: Congregational Union of England and Wales, 1898), 31.

[9] C. Anderson Scott, Evangelical Doctrine – Bible Truth (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1901), 256-257.

[10] R. J. Campbell, The New Theology, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1907), 245-246.

[11] A. M. Fairbarn, Catholicism: Roman and Anglican (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1899), 42.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism, 135-136.

[14] Grant, Free Churchmanship in England, 147.

[15] “In the Congregationalist literature of the period there is scarcely any mention of the subject.” Ibid., 148.