Jonathan Dickinson And The Subscription Controversy -- By: Michael Bauman

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 41:3 (Sep 1998)
Article: Jonathan Dickinson And The Subscription Controversy
Author: Michael Bauman


Jonathan Dickinson
And The Subscription Controversy

Michael Bauman*

* Michael Bauman is professor of theology and culture at Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, MI 49242.

The uses to which churches and parachurch organizations put their creeds, confessions and statements of faith are varied and multiform. So also is the degree of prudence attending those uses, as subsequent events seem always to demonstrate. To be wiser than we are, to make the best use we can of the creeds, confessions and statements we have devised, we must learn to listen to the churchmen and theologians of the past, deducing from them and their experience how best to apply our fundamental documents to churchly endeavor in a fallen world. We seldom do better than when we make good use of the hard-won wisdom of the ages, without which we are consigned to ignorance and to reinventing the ecclesiastical or theological wheel. The purpose of this essay, therefore, is to examine one such illustrative episode in American Church history—namely, the subscription controversy that surrounded the Adopting Act in colonial Presbyterianism—and to glean from it the prudence needed to address more effectively the double menace of clerical misconduct and doctrinal deviation, two of the most pernicious ecclesiastical problems to which we have applied our fundamental theological texts, though not always with good effect. In so doing we shall examine the Act’s cultural and ecclesiastical background, its historical unfolding, its intention, and its wisdom—or lack thereof.

I. Historical Background

Like most of the colonials who attempted to transplant Old-World institutions to the American wilderness, the Presbyterians of the middle colonies tended to address emerging threats or challenges on the basis of the models inherited from their own particular backgrounds. Whether those models were readily transferable was a question that remained abstract, indeed unanswerable, until a concrete situation called forth a solution. When those difficulties surfaced, the arduous process of applying, modifying and reapplying those models began.

The ecclesiastical challenge that most fully initiated this process for the young Presbyterian church in America centered around the moral laxity of two of its ordained members, Robert Cross and John Clement. Cross’ infraction was fornication. Believing it a single and momentary lapse, and aware

of the quick and full confession made by the offender, the Synod of Philadelphia administered only a slight penalty: Cross was suspended from clerical duties for four Sundays.1 The next year, 1721, Clement was found gu...

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