The Erosion of Calvinist Orthodoxy (Review)

Published: RTR 71, no. 1, 2012

The Erosion of Calvinist Orthodoxy: Drifting from the Truth in Confessional Scottish Churches

Ian Hamilton, Ross-shire: Mentor, 2010. 233pp.

I have set this book as required and assessed reading for my Westminster Confession and Presbyterian History students. It was first published back in 1990, in a fairly drab format, by Rutherford House, and a condensed form of it appeared in volume 2 of the Ligon Duncan series on the Westminster Confession (Mentor: 2004). Hamilton relates the tragic story of the constitutional changes that allowed the departure of Scottish Presbyterian Churches from Confessional orthodoxy. He does not directly touch on the constitutional arrangements of Australian Presbyterian Churches, but the relevance is immediate and sobering. The story is a cautionary tale for every confessional denomination.

Hamilton starts at 1711, when the Scottish Church required its ministers to subscribe to ‘the whole doctrine contained in the Confession’. The first changes to subscription arose in the General Associate Synod in 1796, over the Confession’s chapter on the civil magistrate. More far-reaching consequences arose from the Atonement Controversy of 1841–1845, from which the United Secession Church sanctioned hypothetical universalism. Hamilton ably guides the reader, making this technical debate as readable and lively as possible.

In the later Union Controversy (1863–1873), the language of ‘sufficient for all, adapted to all, and offered to all’, came to be used of salvation. ‘Adapted’, for the strict Calvinist, meant ‘adequate’ (C. Hodge) or ‘adapted to our wants’ (A.A. Hodge), but for the hypothetical universalist, who held to the ‘unCalvinistic’ atonement, as it was termed, it could signify that Christ’s death removed some barrier between God and all people, making all people saveable.

The United Presbyterians used the ‘adapted to all’ expression in its Declaratory Act of 1879 (which is repeated in the 1901 Declaratory Statement of the Presbyterian Church of Australia – PCA). It was a momentous step, designed to allow something directly contrary to the Calvinist core of the Confession (the Confession’s vox signata). A new relationship to the Confession was instituted. To enshrine the new relationship, a liberty of opinion clause was framed, which granted liberty ‘on such points in the Standards, not entering into the substance of the faith’. (The PCA’s liberty clause echoes more the 1711 language, retaining the Confession itself as the standard, rather than a vague ‘substance of the faith’ notion: liberty of opinion on ‘matters’ in the Confession ‘not essential to the doctrine therein taught,’). Those advocating the new Statement avowed their commitment to full Calvinism, but the clause gave the mechanism for sanctioned movement away from a whole range of doctrines. Calvinist orthodoxy was fading rapidly, and evangelicalism of any flavour would soon follow. 

Hamilton has well demonstrated that movement away from strict subscription has historically been a slippery slope. He does not argue that a confession can turn back a sustained tide of opposition, but he does want to convey that confessionalism is valid and beneficial. ‘Without meaningful and biblically substantive Confessions of Faith the Church will the more easily forget, and ignore, the realities on which it depends.’