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A Brief History of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland.
Who are we? Where did we come from? When was the NSPCI established?
I wonder how many of us know the details of how our denomination came into being?
The story of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland (also called the NSPCI) is a story that takes us right back to the earliest beginnings of Presbyterianism in Ireland.
It is also a story that involves the coming together of three separate and distinct Non-Subscribing Presbyterian groups in Ireland. I would like to look at these three groups now starting with the Presbytery of Antrim. And in doing so, we will start at the very beginning.
The first Presbyterians to arrive in Ireland were from Scotland even before the plantations took place. The new King of Scotland James VI when he came to power tried to do away with the Presbyterian Church in Scotland and tried to make it into an Episcopal Church with Bishops as was the case in the Church of England. As we saw last week, having bishops made the Church much easier for the Monarch to have exert control over rather than the grass roots democratic system represented by Presbyterianism. Many Presbyterians in Scotland resisted and in the end were successful, but some decided to cross the Irish Sea to make a new life for themselves in Ulster.
It wasn’t long after in 1610 when James, who was by now also King of England began his strategy of the plantations in order to gain more control over the North of Ireland. And with the plantations large waves of Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans were moved into Ulster, rapidly swelling the number of Presbyterians.
By 1642, there were enough Presbyterians to form a Presbytery consisting of some of the earliest congregations: First and Second Presbyterian Churches in Belfast, as well as the Churches in Cairncastle, Holywood, Larne and Templepatrick. All of these Church are part of the NSPCI today.
For the first 100 years or more, from the early 1600s to the early 1700s Ulster Presbyterians never had to subscribe to a specific statement of belief. For the first 100 years they survived and flourished quite happily with the Bible alone as their rule of faith. Many would have known and agreed with the ideas of John Calvin together with the ideas of other reformers, but at no point were these early Ulster Presbyterians required to all agree on exactly what the correct doctrine was.
But by the early 1700s this began to change. In 1690, in Scotland, the mother-land of Ulster Presbyterianism, the Westminster Confession of Faith was adopted into law in the Scottish parliament, defining the faith of the Church of Scotland which was Presbyterian. From that point on, Presbyterianism became more than just a system of government, it now formally became Calvinist as well. Calvin's theology became Presbyterian Doctrine, and Presbyterian Ministers in Scotland were required to conform to it. Scottish ministers were required to sign or subscribe their names as a token of belief in the Westminster Confession of Faith.
This was not the case in Ulster, because the Presbyterians of Ulster were independent of the Church of Scotland. But overtime, because Ulster still recruited many of it’s ministers from Scotland and many were trained in Scotland, they brought with them the influence of the Church of Scotland. Soon Calvinism became the popular belief of Presbyterians in Ulster and it wasn’t long before some of these Scottish ministers began to try and make it compulsory for Irish and Ulster Presbyterians to subscribe as well.
These attempts were bravely resisted by quite a number of Ulster Presbyterians. John Abernathy was the key name among the non-subscribers. He was the minister of Antrim and was opposed to all attempts to introduce Subscription. In 1719 he preached a famous sermon in Belfast in which he denied that the Church had any right to make people subscribe to any statement of belief. A year later, when Rev. Samuel Halliday came to Belfast to be installed at First Church in Rosemary Street, he refused to Subscribe and this brought the matter to a head.
By this time the number of Presbyteries had grown and so the Synod of Ulster had been formed. At its next Annual meeting in 1721 it was urged that all ministers should subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Those who opposed this, and contended that there should be no creed except the Bible became known from that time onwards as Non-Subscribers. Further, in 1724, Rev. Thomas Nevin, Minister of Downpatrick was tried on a charge of heresy. There General Synod ruled against him, although a sizeable minority supported him. The Synod of Ulster didn’t know what to do with these non-subscribers and so decided to put them into their own Presbytery, to remove what they saw as bad apples from corrupting others. The new Presbytery became known as the non-subscribing Presbytery of Antrim. They were still officially part of the Synod of Ulster, but the following year it was decided to completely sever ties with the Presbytery of Antrim making it an independent body.
This episode in Ulster Presbyterian History is called the First Subscription Controversy. Now there were two Presbyterian bodies in Ulster. There was the Synod of Ulster who were officially subscribing. And there was the Presbytery of Antrim which was Non-Subscribing. Interestingly, some of those original congregations like Templepatrick, Larne, Cairncastle although they were placed in the Non-Subscribing Presbytery of Antrim, adopted the name The Old Presbyterian Church of Larne or Templepatrick or Cairncastle as a reminder that for over 100 years the original or old Presbyterians of Ulster were not forced to Subscribe to Calvinist Doctrine or in fact to any creedal statement at all apart from the Bible. These Churches still to this day, are known as the Old Presbyterians and are part of our denomination.
Next we come to the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster.
The subscribers in the Synod of Ulster in the North believed they had won by pushing the non-subscribers out into the Presbytery of Antrim. But as time past, over the next 80-90 years, attitudes towards the Westminster Confession of Faith relaxed and from about the 1770-80s they were no longer forcing their ministers to subscribe to it. By about 1820 the issue of forced subscription became a problem again especially when accusations began to grow that some ministers were Arian in their theology and therefore no longer subscribed to the orthodox views of the Trinity. On the side of trying to enforce Subscription was the Rev. Dr. Henry Cooke. And on the side of those advocating Non-subscription was the Rev. Dr. Henry Montgomery, strongly supported by the minister from Banbridge the Rev James Davis. Rev. Dr Henry Montgomery became known as the Lion of Dunmurry. In the battles between Henry Montgomery and Henry Cook, within the Synod of Ulster, the Rev. Dr Henry Cook’s supporters were in the majority. Once again a new set of Non-subscribers were forced out of the General Synod and once again, they formed their own organisation. In 1829, Rev. Dr. Henry Montgomery led three Presbyteries of Armagh, Bangor and Templepatrick out of the Synod of Ulster and formed the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster (which still sort of exists today under the umbrella of the NSPCI).
The first moderator of the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster was the Rev. William Porter who made the following statement:
“We have come together to prove that we are genuine Presbyterians, asserters of the right of private judgement, uncompromising advocates of the self-sufficiency of the Bible as the Rule of Faith and Duty – Christ, Christ and Christ only is our King. The Bible, and the Bible only is our accredited standard of Belief.”
And so in 1830, there were now three Presbyterian organisations in Ulster -
There was the General Synod of Ulster comprising of Subscribing Presbyterians.
There was the Non-Subscribing Presbytery of Antrim that had been formed in 1725
And now there was the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster formed in 1830.
Lastly we come to the Non-Subscribers of the South.
At the same time as all of this was taking place in the North of Ireland, in the South of Ireland over a long period of time there had been in existence similar groups of Presbyterians. Although there was some cross-fertilisation with Presbyterians from the North of Ireland, the Presbyterians in the South of Ireland had a largely separate or parallel existence. Their primary beginnings had not been Scottish Presbyterianism, but rather English Presbyterianism. They were known initially as the Southern Association which became distinct and separated from the subscribing Presbytery of Dublin when the Presbytery of Dublin was constituted in 1726. Like many Presbyterians in England who had begun to move away from the Westminster Confession of Faith, so in turn many Presbyterians in the South of Ireland had also begun to move away from the Westminster Confession of Faith. Some of these Churches in the South of Ireland had in fact never subscribed to the Westminster Confession of faith, going right back to the late 1600s and early 1700s. These Churches which formed what was called the Southern Association had in fact supported the first Non-Subscribers of the North when they were placed in the Non-Subscribing Presbytery of Antrim. The Southern Association had also provided support for Rev. Colville and the Dromore congregation when he had refused to subscribe, allowing Dromore to become a part of the Southern Association in order for Rev. Colville to be properly installed at Dromore. Like many Presbyterians in England as well as some in Ulster, there were also Presbyterians in the Southern Association who were beginning to adopt Arian and Unitarian beliefs because they felt they could no longer subscribe to the Doctrine of the Trinity based on their reading of Scripture. In fact as early as 1703 saw the trial and sentencing of Rev. Thomas Emlyn in Dublin to two years imprisonment and a hefty fine because he didn’t subscribe to orthodox views of the Trinity. This trial and sentencing in Dublin left a lasting impact not only on the churches in the South but also in the North.
And so across Ireland, by 1830, there were now 3 Non-Subscribing Presbyterian groups that largely held a similar positions on many things.
There was the Presbytery of Antrim
There was the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster
And there was the Southern Association which by that time was now called the Synod of Munster.
At a meeting held in Dublin on the 20th July 1835, representatives of each of these three groups met to discuss how they might work together and formed the Association of Irish Non-subscribing Presbyterians. This wasn’t yet the NSPCI as we know it today. It was more of an association rather than a fully fledged denomination.
Over time, in the North of Ireland, in Ulster, the Presbytery of Antrim and the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster grew closer together. Finally in 1910, the Presbytery of Antrim and the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster united in a more formal way to form the General Synod of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, and so the NSPCI as a denomination was born.
They remained part of the Association of Irish Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches with the Synod of Munster.
Then finally in 1935 the Synod of Munster formally became part of the General Synod of the Non-Subscribing Presbyterians Church of Ireland and together adopting the motto from Scripture: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is Freedom”.
In reference to this liberty, in 1892, Rev. W.G. Bannister summarised the spirit that continues to guide our denomination when he said:
“Remember, liberty, however precious, is in itself only a negative. It is merely the removal of hindrances to seeking truth. A far greater question is: what truth have you found, when you have go your liberty? What Gospel have you to proclaim for the salvation of the world? Had Christ a Gospel for the world? He had. What does he teach? He unfolds that life’s secret lies in blessedness not happiness, in character not condition, in righteousness, not reputation, in meekness, truth, gentleness, goodness, not in riches ease or power, that we must not resist evil but bless them that persecute us, that love is the greatest thing in the world, and the fulfilling of the law”.
What does it mean to be Presbyterian?
How does our particular version of Presbyterianism differ from other forms of Presbyterianism?
Presbyterianism is one of the earliest forms of Protestantism. The Presbyterianism finds its origins roots mainly in the reform movement of Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Bucer and most especially John Calvin. John Calvin had trained for the Roman Catholic priesthood but became influenced with reformation ideas of Martin Luther which he began to re-interpret in his own way. Zwingli and Bucer were both Catholic Priests who became reformers.
Out of the work of John Calvin (as well as Bucer and Zwingli), the Reformed tradition grew, becoming distinct and different from Lutheranism having gone further than Martin Luther in their reforms and their theology. And so Presbyterians are part of the Reformed family of Protestant Churches that exist all over the world which include Presbyterians, as well as the Dutch Reformed Churches, the Swiss Reformed Churches, Reformed Church of Germany and the French Hugenots.
When the Reformation ideas of John Calvin began to reach Scotland, John Knox who was a Catholic priest felt inspired. He left Scotland, travelled to Geneva where John Calvin was based and became a kind of a disciple of John Calvin. Although John Knox was originally a Catholic Priest, he became the Catholic Church’s fieriest critic in Scotland. His aim was to make Scotland the most Protestant country in Europe. Through his fiery preaching and strong personality, John Knox introduced the Reformed Tradition of John Calvin to Scotland where it became known as Presbyterianism. Today, any Church around the world that bears the name Presbyterian can trace it’s roots back to Scottish Presbyterianism.
Most Presbyterians share three things in common:
1 – Firstly, most Presbyterians hold to the theology of John Calvin, and so, most Presbyterians are called Calvinists. In the British Isles, Calvinist theology is summarised in the Westminster Confession of Faith, written during the English Civil War by 121 Reformed theologians and ministers in Westminster Abbey and first published in 1646. We explored the Westminster Confession of Faith briefly two weeks ago.
One of the most controversial ideas in the Westminster Confession of faith was the idea of double predestination, whereby Calvin believed that God has predestined some human beings to be saved, while on the other hand, he believed that God had predestined the rest of human beings to roast in eternal damnation. And there is really in the end nothing you can do because Calvin believed that God has decided before hand who is to be saved and who is to be condemned.
This aspect of Presbyterianism, the theology of Calvin, is the part of Presbyterianism that we as Non-Subscribers don’t subscribe to. Our denomination is therefore not Calvinist in our theology.
The Non-Subscribers of Ireland believed that it was not very Protestant to impose a new belief system on Christians. They believed that every Christian should have access to the Bible and to be able to come to their own conclusions.
2 – Secondly, all Presbyterian Churches share the same ideas on Church polity of Church government that come particularly from the ideas of the Reformer Martin Bucer. This is the part of Presbyterianism that we share with all other Presbyterian Churches. Presbyterianism essentially refers to a Church system that is governed by assemblies or groups of elders. Early pioneers of the Reformed tradition, said that it was not new at all, but they believed it was how the early Church of the New Testament times was structured.
Elders in the New Testament are called Presbyters elders, which in the New Testament is the Greek word, Presbyteros. And so that is where the name Presbyterian comes from. Presbyterians rule their Churches by Elders or Presbyters.
In Presbyterianism, there are two kinds of elders: Ruling Elders and Teaching Elders. Originally, Ruling Elders took care of the running of the Church and assisted with pastoral care, and the Teaching elder took care of the teaching and preaching. Originally, all elders were supposed to be equal, but over time it seems that the teaching elder, or minister or pastor became elevated in importance. This is probably for two reasons, 1. Firstly every Sunday, he or she is elevated in a pulpit and people a literally forced to look up to him or her. 2. Secondly Ministers are generally the only paid Elders and as a result a lot more work and responsibility is directed to the Minister.
But still, theoretically all elders are meant to be equal.
The next important feature of Presbyterian Church government is that decisions are not made by one person, but instead are made collectively by elders. This is what makes Presbyterians different from the Church of Ireland or the Catholic Church who both have bishops. In the Catholic Church and Church of Ireland, a Bishop is appointed for life (until they die or retire), and the Bishop exercises the ministry of oversight. Bishops are a little bit like a local Church King who rules from the top down, even if it is still in their best interests to consult.
But Presbyterianism however represents an early Western form of democracy and was probably responsible for the spreading of democratic political ideas. Elders are elected and chosen by the people, (although, like Bishops, once ordained they are elders for life). But the big difference is that elders operate democratically where decisions are made by voting amongst themselves while also consulting the local congregations
And so at a local level, in the Presbyterian system, the church elects elders to be ordained who then collectively make decisions for the local church. The Elders form what is called the session, sometimes called the Kirk-Session, and they are assisted by a committee of elected members.
At the next level of Presbyterianism is the Presbytery refers to a number of local churches that have been together often based on geography (but not always the case). All ministers or teaching elders are automatically members of Presbytery, and in addition, each local Church elects another elder to represent them at Presbytery to help vote and make decisions.
Again, all decisions at Presbytery are made democratically. Every year, a new minister is elected to be the chairperson, or the Moderator. The Moderator also represents the Presbytery in official functions. The Moderator is assisted by the Clerk of the Presbytery who does all the admin and paper work. (For my sins I have become the clerk of the Presbytery of Bangor). It is the role of Presbytery as a whole to exercise the ministry of oversight over all the local churches under them. And so Presbytery as a whole fulfils the function which a bishop does in other churches like the Church of Ireland or in the Catholic Church.
The next level of Presbyterianism ifs generally called a Synod or General Synod. Synod Meets once a year and all the members of each Presbytery are represented at Synod consisting of ministers and representative Elders. Again a t General Synod, a moderator is elected annually with a clerk to do all the admin. Again, all decisions are made democratically.
Again Moderators are temporary positions who are more like chairpersons. They only hold very limited and temporary power as temporary managers, compared to a Bishop who holds the position for life and who is like a King in their own diocese.
And so the Presbyterian form of government is a sort of democracy with power from below and power or oversight from above.
This was a very radical change in Europe, and it challenged the power of Monarchs. Kings and Queens much preferred Churches to be run by bishops, because bishops were like mini kings themselves. Church government by Bishops was a top down authority which worked in a similar way to Kings and Queens who ruled from the top down. In England, Wales and Ireland for a long time, Monarchs appointed their own Bishops and if they kept Bishops on their side, they could use bishops to do their bidding. But this was not possible with the Presbyterian form of government. Because it was far more democratic and moderators changed every year, the Kings and Queens could not rely on them as much. Presbyterianism was therefore perceived as a threat and a challenge to the power of Monarchs which is why in England, Ireland and Wales the Monarchs made sure that the established Churches retained their bishops. But in Scotland, John Knox’s Presbyterian Reformation had been so successful that the Monarchs could never restore the power of bishops even though they tried, and so, the established Church of Scotland became the only one in the United Kingdom that was Presbyterian.
Because Presbyterians were perceived as a threat to the power of the monarch, at various times, the monarchs tried to stamp out Presbyterianism (along with other non-conforming Protestant groups) and were therefore often persecuted in favour of the Church or England, Wales and the Church of Ireland.
Someone asked me what the term black-mouthed Presbyterians means. In my reading, the term black-mouth was used as a derogatory term against Presbyterians who were regarded as radicals against the state. Their radicalness lay in the fact that they were often persecuted by the state and the established Church of Ireland and who therefore desired to throw off the authority of their persecutors with a desire for political democracy in line with the democratic nature of their own church government. I understand it the term Blackmouth was first applied to Presbyterians in the days of the Volunteers and United Irishman. The story goes that some of these radicals had to hide in the hills and eat black-berries which made their mouths black, but some dispute whether this part of the story was actually true or not.
Thirdly, the last characteristic of Presbyterianism is their form of worship:
Presbyterianism together with other churches in the Reformed tradition, wanted to do away with anything that smacked of Romanism or Catholicism. And so they away with all unnecessary ritual. Worship became much simpler. The focus became on preaching from Scripture, interspersed with prayer and singing. Initially singing was without instruments and was only Scripture based. Church buildings were not called Churches, because according to the Reformed tradition, the people were the church, not the building. Churches were therefore called Meeting Houses to emphasize the fact that they were functional. There was nothing especially holy about the building itself. Meeting Houses were therefore initially very plain and simple.
Interestingly, on the theme of worship, according to John Calvin, Communion was still supposed to be the central act of worship which he said should take place every week. But for whatever reason most Reformed Churches never took this up. Maybe they felt that this was still too Catholic?
Communion in Reformed Churches therefore only takes place normally once a quarter or twice a year and possibly once a month. Although a small minority have begun to celebrate communion weekly in line with Calvin’s ideas.
Reformed and Presbyterians would practice communion differently from the Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran and Catholic churches. In these other churches, as a sign of reverence, people would normally kneel to receive communion. This was always the case in the Catholic Church up until the 1960’s when most Catholics began to receive communion standing. But Presbyterians receive communion sitting, because Presbyterians would say that we as Christians sit at the table of Christ as God’s children, rather than kneeling as though we were grovelling before God as God’s servants. But as with so many things that divide us as Christians, both ways of receiving communion could be justified from scripture.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, at communion, it is believed that a change happens so that the bread and wine, literally become the body and blood of Christ, even though they retain the outward appearance of bread and wine.
In the Lutheran tradition, Martin Luther believed that the Bread and Wine remain bread and wine, but that Christ becomes especially present in the Bread and Wine. It is one step away from Roman Catholicism.
In the Presbyterian tradition, Calvin believed that Christ is truly present at Communion, but Christ’s presence is not connected with the Bread and Wine. The Bread and Wine are outward symbols that enable us to remember Christ’s great sacrifice and in doing so help us to become more deeply aware of the Christ who joins his Church in worship.
As Non-subscribing Presbyterians, both our Worship and our Church government is shared in common with most other Presbyterians. We simply give every member the right to come to their own theological conclusions, and in this sense we are different from most other Presbyterians.
• Next Week we will explore how the NSPCI was formed -
• When I am back from leave we will explore also the emblem of the Burning Bush that all Presbyterians hold in common – and the history of it.
What does it mean to be Unitarian? Why were we once called Unitarians? And why are we no longer called Unitarians anymore?
These are the questions I would like to explore today as we continue to explore our history as Dromore / Banbridge Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church.
As a preface to this sermon, even though many other Christians would look down on Unitarians and sometimes even question if they should be called Christians, it should be noted that there is a long list of famous Unitarians who have made an enormous contribution to the world. They would include: Florence Nightingale, Thomas Jefferson, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Beatrix Potter, Tim-Berners-Lee creator of the internet, Neville Chamberlain, George Washington, Samuel Morse – Co-inventor of morse code.
Before we can answer the first question, why were we once called Unitarians? We need to define what the word Unitarian means? To do that we also need to define what the word Trinitarian means. And to do that it might be helpful to explore the story of Christianity going right back to the beginning of the Church.
After Jesus, lived and died, and was resurrected (however one might define the term resurrection), the community of Jesus followers were in effect left contemplating the question: “Who on earth was that? Who on earth was this Jesus that we encountered?
Different opinions floated around and were expressed: Some believed that Jesus was a prophet not unlike Elijah and Moses, but perhaps greater than both. Others believed that Jesus was a great Rabbi or spiritual teacher approved by God. Some referred to Jesus as the Servant of God making reference to passages in Isaiah which speak of the Servant of God. Others spoke of Jesus as the Son of Man referring to passages from Daniel where we encounter a great spiritual being who was one who looked like a son of man. Others spoke of Jesus as God’s chosen Messiah, which simply means anointed one, which sometimes in the Old Testament could refer to both kings ad priests who were anointed. Others used the term Son of God which in the Old Testament is often a term used to refer to God’s chosen king. So David was called the Son of God. But the term also suggested that the one called Son of God must have resembled God in some way. Other’s used the term Great High Priest, and others spoke of Jesus as the Logos or the Wisdom of God made flesh. In and through all of these titles and descriptions lay a belief that in a profound way, in and through the human person of Jesus, people had come into contact with God. Somehow, through Jesus, God had drawn near to them.
As the Church grew and spread, different communities would have had their own favourite way of speaking of Jesus and so amongst the followers of Jesus and amongst those who called themselves Christians, there was quite a wide variety of belief and practice. Some were more Jewish in their faith expression, others were not.
And so there was a great variety within the early Church. The was no single consensus on exactly who or what Jesus was. In fact there wasn’t even a consensus on what the New Testament Scriptures were. Different lists of writings began to appear from around 140 AD, but the first full list of New Testament 27 books can only be found in 367 AD, roughly 330 years after Jesus. Before that they were mostly just letters that were circulating, and stories that had been compiled into the Gospels and the Book of Acts. Some Church communities had access to some of these writings and others had access to others, along with a lot of other writings that were never included in the final list of New testaments letters and books.
In this context, the question of who and what Jesus was remained a source of constant debate and controversy.
In the midst of all this, in the late 200s and early 300s, a Christian leader, called Arius created an enormous stir in the Christian world that pretty much split Christianity in two camps. He taught that Jesus or the Christ was God’s first and greatest creation, through whom and with whom, God then created the rest of creation. He therefore taught that Christ was subordinate to God the Father and that although Christ shared many of God’s Divine qualities, he was Divine in a kind of secondary sense to God. Arius therefore argued for the supremacy of God as the Father and Source of all, and that the Son was not eternal as God was eternal, but rather had a beginning as the true First-born of God. He quoted the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians who writes of Jesus as being the first-born over all creation.
It would seem that at least half of Christians agreed with Arius and so he was by no means the only Christian who held such a view. In fact it was quite a widespread view. Arius had just spoken out loud what at least half of Christians believed.
But many other Christians disagreed with Arius saying that Christ was eternal and fully Divine just as the Father was Divine.
By this time, Christianity had been made the official religion of the Roman Empire and so the Emperor was rather disturbed at all the conflict and division he was seeing in the Church. He wanted to unify the Church in order to unify the Empire. And so he called a Church council to resolve the dispute. In fact it ended up that there were more than one Council convened to iron out these matters.
The long and the short of it was that at the council of Nicea in 325 AD they took a position opposite to Arius and it was declared that Christ was fully divine and not less Divine than the Father and was therefore in his divinity was co-equal and co-eternal with God the Father. And so Christ’s Divine nature was not made or created, that stated that he had always existed from all eternity as God of one substance or being with God. At the same time, it was taught that Jesus was also 100% human in his time on earth. According to Nicea therefore, Jesus was 100% Divine and 100% human, fully Divine and Fully Human.
About 50 years later, at the Council of Constantinople in 381, the Church came to a similar conclusion that the Holy Spirit was likewise Fully Divine and therefore also Co-eternal and Co-equal with God the Father and God the Son.
And so was born the fully fledged Doctrine of the Trinity. The word Trinity had been used before this by some Christian teachers, but it had never been used in quite in this way. This now became the official orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity, about 350 years after Jesus had lived, died and been resurrected.
Not everyone was convinced. Many Christians still followed Arius, who taught that Jesus was created as God’s first and greatest creation and therefore was not fully Divine as God was Divine. The journey to this point was a messy one, which had sometimes included intimidation, banishment and even murder. And so the process leading up to the orthodox teaching of the Trinity was not always an edifying or a holy one.
For the next 1150 years or so, this doctrine of the Trinity was pretty much the official teaching of what became known as the Catholic, or Universal Church. In fact anyone who didn’t agree with this teaching were not considered truly Christian or part of the Universal Church, otherwise known as the Catholic Church.
Then comes the Reformation. When the Reformation started, most of the main Reformers, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli simply accepted the Doctrine of the Trinity as is. Their attention was elsewhere. They were more concerned about questions of how we are saved which is where all the abuse in the Roman Catholic Church had risen from.
But there were other reformers who did begin to question the Doctrine of the Trinity. When they read the Bible, they discovered that the word Trinity didn’t appear there. Trinitarian Theologians would speak of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. But the phrases God the Son and God the Holy Spirit didn’t appear in the Bible. Yes, Jesus was called the Son of God, but it is clear that being called the Son of God did not mean that Jesus was God, after all, even King David had been called the son of God, and after all, Jesus in the beatitudes Jesus says, blessed are the peacemakers for they will be called sons of God.
The more some of these radical reformers read their Bibles, the more it seemed that the Doctrine of the Trinity did not appear in the Bible. In fact they believed that they could find a lot of verses that questioned and undermined the Doctrine of the Trinity. They read in the Bible that Jesus never referred to himself as God and always spoke of God as though God were separate or other than himself. In John’s Gospel after the Resurrection, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene “I am returning to my father and your father, to my God and your God”. How could Jesus return to God if he was already God? In 1 Timothy 2:5 they read that “...there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” In this passage and in others they saw that Jesus was referred to as different from God. Like Arius, they also read in Colossians that Jesus is the first born of creation, suggesting that there was a time when Jesus was not.
And so all over Europe, various Reformation Christians began to question the Doctrine of the Trinity, the Doctrine that said God was Three-in-One and One-in-Three.
Rather they said that God is only One, not Three-in-One, and that only the Father is truly God. This is where the word Unitarian comes from. Unos meaning One as opposed to Trinity which speaks of Three. Different groups came to different conclusions about Jesus. Some like Arius said that Jesus was Divine, but in a lesser or secondary sense to the Father. Other’s began to speak of Jesus as a human who was Divinely inspired, and in whom God’s spirit lived in a special way. Because of this, they became known as Arians and some became known as Unitarians, and often the words were used interchangeably.
And that brings us to Ulster in the 1700s and 1800s. During the 1700s as I said, in Belfast there existed a Presbyterian ministers club called the Belfast Society who met to study the Bible together and present theological papers to one another for discussion. Many of these felt that in their reading of the Bible, they could no longer subscribe to the teaching of the Trinity. Rev. Colville in Dromore was part of this group as well as Rev. Archibald McClaine in Banbridge at around the same time. 100 years later quite a number of ordinary Presbyterians again held some of these views most notably the Rev. Dr. Henry Montgomery from Dunmurry who held views very close to Arius and therefore called himself an Arian.
The fact that both Banbridge and Dromore have large portraits of Rev. Dr. Montgomery suggests that the majority of ministers and congregation members in Banbridge and Dromore supported his views not just against subscribing to the Westminster Confession of Faith, but quite probably also his Unitarian or Arian views as well. And so while the official names of our Churches were First Presbyterian Church (Non-Subscribing), unofficially our Churches became known as the Unitarian Churches of Dromore and Banbridge, and in fact in Dromore in the mid to late 1800s there were two Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Churches in Banbridge that went by the name Unitarian, and this was because the majority of their members and ministers did not subscribe to the doctrine of the Trinity.
Why are we no longer called Unitarian Churches? Probably for a few factors. Firstly I understand that a very wealthy member of our denomination left a very large bequest that was to be put into a fund for Churches in the denomination, but with the following proviso, no Church that went by the name Unitarian would be eligible to receive money from this fund. And so, almost all of the NSPCI churches in Ulster dropped the term Unitarian and went back to the more official name of Non-Subscribing Presbyterian.
Secondly, for a long time, many of our ministers were trained in the Unitarian college in England. This was true of most of our minsters at one time, even up to quite recently. Rev. Peaston and Rev. McCormick were trained in the Unitarian College as was Rev. Mac along with others who currently minister in the NSPCI.
More recently, many of our ministers have been trained at other theological institutions which has meant that there has been a swing back to a more mainstream form of Christianity towards what some would call a gentle Trinitarian theology as opposed to a Unitarian Theology.
Lastly, as the NSPCI has become a member of the Irish Council of Churches it has also probably led some within the denomination to de-emphasise some of the Unitarian elements in the denomination because one of the criteria for belonging to the Irish Council Churches is that the denomination should be Trinitarian.
The truth is that our denomination, according to our constitution is neither officially Trinitarian or Unitarian. According to our constitution we are Non-Subscribing. Everyone has the right to come to their own conclusions. In the NSPCI there have always been Trinitarians alongside Unitarians. Some congregations have been more Trinitarian and others have been more Unitarian. The problem is that if you say that a congregation is Unitarian, then you are no longer properly non-subscribing any-more, because you create the impression that you have to hold Unitarian views to be part of that congregation. And that is why, even though there is room within our denomination to be either a Trinitarian or a Unitarian, we are not called Unitarians any-more, we are quite rightly called Non-Subscribing and it is up to each persons own conscience to decide whether they are Unitarian, or Arian, or Trinitarian. And it is also perfectly fine not to call oneself any of these. Some might say “none of the above” and might prefer to be simply called a follower of Jesus or simply a Christian.
What is the Westminster Confession of Faith? Why do we not subscribe to it?
Last week we looked at some highlights from our history and I shared how in Dromore in 1724 Rev. Alexander Colville refused to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which led to Dromore becoming a Non-Subscribing Presbyterian congregation and likewise, 100 years later in Banbridge, Rev. James Davis resisted attempts to impose Subscription upon Presbyterians and Banbridge also became a non-subscribing congregation
Today I want to explore these things a little deeper.
Many might be asking what exactly is the Westminster Confession of Faith? Why did many ministers and congregations refuse to subscribe to it? What does it therefore mean therefore to be a non-subscriber?
Firstly, we will tackle the question: What is the Westminster Confession of Faith?
Probably the simplest answer is that the Westminster Confession of Faith is a Reformed statement of belief that was drawn up by 121 Reformed English theologians in Westminster during the English Civil War of 1642-1649. It was first published in 1648.
The purpose of this statement of belief was two-fold. Firstly, it had a political purpose which was to secure the help of the Scots against the King by reforming the Church of England into a Presbyterian institution. The second purpose was a religious one, to purify and simplify the religion of the Church of England. Those who advocated these reforms were called Puritans. They wanted a radical, simple and purified religion that would do away with the role and the power of bishops and any rituals and beliefs that the Puritans believed were a throwback to Roman Catholicism.
And so, the Westminster Confession of Faith was part of the political and religious agenda of the Puritans to do away with the Monarchy and to make England into a Republic and to turn the Church of England into a Presbyterian institution.
During the 11 years that England was a Republic, the Westminster Confession was adopted into the legal framework of the Republic, guiding the principles on which the Church of England would be governed. When the Monarchy was restored in 1660, the Westminster Confession of Faith was taken out of law. It was no longer used by the Church of England. But it was still used by Presbyterians and Congregationalists across the British Isles.
If you were to download a copy of the Westminster Confession of Faith from the internet, it would come to about 92 A4 pages. And so it is quite a lengthy document of theology that has 33 chapters covering the following themes:
Holy Scriptures, the Trinity and predestination
The role of the Law, Christian liberty and worship
Civil government and marriage
Church government and discipline
Eschatology – which is a big theological word referring to “the last things” – in other words the end of the world, the last judgement and the resurrection of the dead.
It contains a minimalist conception of worship and contains a very strict understanding of the Sabbath, meaning that the whole of Sunday was to be used for worship with no recreation.
The theological framework of the Westminster Confession of Faith was based on the theology of John Calvin, and therefore on what we would call today: Calvinist Theology.
John Calvin took the Protestant reformation ideas of Martin Luther and he interpreted them in an even more radical way. Some of John Calvin’s ideas were controversial.
What perhaps were some of the most controversial aspects of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Firstly John Calvin’s concept of Salvation by Grace alone – John Calvin took this idea to it’s furthest extreme. He believed that human beings played absolutely no part in Salvation. He believed that human beings were totally depraved, capable of no goodness of their own. Therefore, human beings could play absolutely no part in their own salvation. Salvation was therefore completely the work of God.
What followed on from this doctrine was probably the most controversial Calvinist idea of all, often called the doctrine of ‘double-predestination’. In this doctrine, Calvin believed that in God’s Sovereign and Inscrutable will, God had chosen or predestined some human beings for Salvation. These lucky people, Calvin referred to as ‘the elect’. While ‘the elect’ were chosen or predestined by God’s Sovereign and Inscrutable will for salvation, the rest of humanity according to Calvin (and the Westminster Confession), were predestined by God for damnation. And for these unlucky people, there was nothing that they could do about this, because God had decided before hand that it would be so. And according to Calvin, nobody but God knows who is predestined for heaven and who is predestined for hell.
Bringing it closer to home, what it means is that of those of us sitting here today, it could be said that some of us have been chosen and pre-selected by God to go to heaven and some of us have been chosen and pre-selected by God to suffer eternal punishment. For those chosen for salvation, this is an act of God’s grace, God’s free gift, but for those predestined for damnation this might all seem a little unjust! But the big problem is, How can you be sure that you are amongst the elect who are going to heaven? In the end, you can’t be sure, there is no assurance because only God knows.
Along with this doctrine, Calvin and the Westminster Confession believed in what is called ‘Limited Atonement’. By this Calvin believed that Christ did not die for all, rather, Christ only died for the elect. In other words Christ only died for those whom God had chosen to save.
It is probably these doctrines, the total depravity of human beings and the doctrine of double predestination and the doctrine of Limited Atonement that were the primary doctrines that made many ministers and congregations refuse to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith.
Closely allied to the Calvinist Doctrine of Double Predestination is the idea of God’s Sovereign Will. In the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith, God "freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass." In other words, whatever happens in this world, is all the will of God. And this raises some uncomfortable questions: Is Putin’s invasion and bombing of Ukraine freely and unchangeably ordained by God? What about the bombing of the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester? The list could go on… Is this perhaps a dangerously simplistic notion to say that everything that happens is the will of God?
One of the earliest critiques of Calvinist doctrine came from a reformed theologian from the Netherlands. His name was Jacob Arminius and he died in 1609. But in the last years of his life, he was open about his criticism of Calvinist Doctrine especially regarding Double-Predestination. When he died, his supporters broke away from the Dutch Reformed Church and formed a Church community called the Remonstrants, which is significant, because around 200 years later, when the Non-Subscribers were booted out of the General Synod of Ulster, they formed the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster. I suspect that in using the word Remonstrant, they were making a statement showing that they were in agreement with Jacob Arminius’s criticism of Calvinism.
In this regard, theologically speaking, many NSPCI churches probably have more in common with many Methodists rather than Subscribing Presbyterians, because John Wesley the founder of Methodism also aligned himself with the theology of Jacob Arminius.
But it perhaps needs to be acknowledged that for some, their disagreement with the Westminster Confession of faith went deeper than just a disagreement with Calvinism. As I mentioned last week in Banbridge, many of the Non-Subscribers were connected with the New Light movement of the Belfast Society, which consisted of mainly Presbyterian Ministers who would gather together to read and explore the Scriptures and Theology together. For many of them, in their careful reading of the Scriptures, they had begun to question the doctrine of the Trinity itself believing that it couldn’t be supported by Scripture. Those who held such a position were called Arian’s and some used the term Unitarian. But that is a discussion for next week’s sermon.
It needs to be noted that in the end, the Non-Subscribers here in Ulster, led by the Henry Montgomery in 1830, when they formed the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster, they were not only specifically rejecting attempts to force them to subscribe to the Westminster Confession of Faith, they were rejecting any attempt to force any man made creed or statement of belief upon Christians as a whole. They believed that one of the key founding principles of the Protestant Reformation was the belief in Freedom of Conscience. As I said last week, how could Luther have confronted the abuses of Rome if he had not followed his own private judgement and his own freedom of conscience. Without freedom of conscience and private judgement, the Protestant Reformation would never have happened. It is the unspoken, underlying principle upon which much of the rest of the Reformation rests.
In the old NSPCI Catechism, question 35 asks: What is meant by Protestantism? The answer is: Protestantism is the religion of those who, holding to the headship of Jesus Christ, the sufficiency of Scripture, and the right of private judgement, reject the authority of the Papacy.
It would seem that what many of the early Non-Subscribers probably would have contended was that by forcing people to subscribe to the Westminster Confession, both John Calvin and the Westminster Confession had become a new kind of papacy, by a new name that was once again inhibiting freedom of conscience and the right of private judgement. And these principles of freedom of conscience and the right to private judgement they believed were enshrined in three passages of Scripture:
In 1 Thess. 5:21 Paul urges the Christians to use their own private judgement when he says to them: “Test / Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good”.
In Romans 14:5 Paul at the end of a lengthy argument writes that “each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.”
And lastly, in II Corinthians 3:17 the verse that appears on our NSPCI logo: “Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty / freedom”.