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SUBSCRIPTION TO ARTICLES OF RELIGION.
Every religious society, or church, has an unquestionable right to determine that its own creed shall be the creed which all who may be admitted to share its privileges shall profess to receive. The articles admitted into this creed may be too numerous, or, some of them may even be erroneous; but if a voluntary society choose to adopt them, who has a right to hinder ? and if they adopt them as the expression of their own religious belief, may they not require that all who shall be admitted into communion with them shall be of the same sentiments ? This remark holds true, more especially in regard to those who are proposed as candidates for the sacred office.
“ The inquiry concerning subscription,” says Paley, “ will be, quis imposuit, et quo animo ? The bishop who receives the subscription, is not the imposer, any more than the crier of a court, who administers the oath to the jury and witnesses, is the person that imposes it; nor, consequently, is the private opinion or interpretation of the bishop of any signification to the subscriber, one way or the other.
The compilers of the Thirtynine Articles are not to be considered as the imposers of subscription, any more than the framer or drawer up of a law is the person that arrests it. The Legislature of the 13th Elizabeth is the imposer, whose intention the subscriber is bound to satisfy.
They who contend that nothing less can justify subscription to the thirty-nine articles, than the actual belief of each and every separate proposition contained in them, must suppose, that the legislature expected the consent of ten thousand men, and that in perpetual succession, not to one controverted proposition, but to many hundreds. It is difficult to conceive how this could be expected by any who observed the incurable diversity of human opinion upon all subjects short of demonstration.” He adds, that the authors of the law intended to exclude from offices in the church, all abettors of popery ; Anabaptists ; and Puritans.
While this distinguished author restricts his observations to the articles of religious belief of the Church of England, they are susceptible of any latitude ; and in the few remarks which I shall offer, I shall consider them as more or less applicable to the confessions of faith of every church.
I. I agree with Mr. Paley in thinking, that the opinion or interpretation of the official person who receives our subscription to articles of religious belief, should have no weight with the subscriber.' His sentiments may be different from the obvious and only meaning of that " form of words” which he requires us to sign' as the confession of our faith. His opinion, therefore, should be received by us only as an opinion, which, if founded in truth, we are to receive, and if erroneous, we should reject.
We are to use proper means for the correct understanding of the formula under consideration; and for ascertaining its conformity to the doctrines of divine revelation. Should the result be, a conviction that it is either in whole or in part fundamentally opposed to the oracles of God, or even, if we are not fully satisfied of its truth, I own I cannot discover on what ground, consistently with a good conscience, we can solemnly declare our belief in it.
II. According to Paley's view, articles of religious belief can scarcely in any case answer the end for which they are framed. In his apprehension, the meaning of these articles is of no moment to those who may be called to subscribe them; since their attention is to be exclusively occupied with the views of those by whom they have been enacted.
In regard to the thirty-nine articles, it matters not though we should never have seen them, if we can only ascertain what were the motives with which the parliament of the thirteenth of Elizabeth enjoined subscription to them as the condition of admission into the offices of the church. With respect to the confession of faith of the Church of Scotland, we need not give ourselves the trouble of reading it ; since our only business is with the intentions of the legislature by which it received the sanction of the state. But is it not probable that there may be as great a difference as to the intentions of the legislature, as there is about the meaning of the different articles which the confession contains ?
Mr. Paley tells us, that the parliament of England designed by the thirty-nine articles to exclude from offices in the church,-all abettors of popery; Anabaptists; and Puritans. This may be true, though it be not the whole truth. May it not still be asked,
is this all that they intended by subscription to these articles ? Is there nothing more than this included in that part of his Majesty's declaration prefixed to the articles, in which it is ordained, that “no man hereafter shall either print or preach to draw the articles aside any way, but shall submit to it in the plain and full meaning thereof; and shall not put his own sense or comment to be the meaning of the article, but shall take it in the literal and grammatical sense ? Does not this language intimate, that our business is not with the intentions of the legislature, but with the literal and grammatical sense of the words which we are required to subscribe? Does it not plainly teach us, that the only intention of the legislature with which we are concerned is, that we take the words which they have prescribed in their obvious and literal acceptation? The design of the legislature by these articles, as it is set forth in the declaration alluded to, was for the avoiding of diversities of opinions, and for establishing of consent touching true religion: but this design is frustrated if men are to subscribe them without regard to their meaning, and to "convert them into articles of
III, Upon Paley's principles, subscription to articles of faith should not be required by any church as the condition of admission into its offices. His reasoning against a literal interpretation of the thirty, nine articles, in so far as it proves any thing, tends to the conclusion that subscription to a confession of faith is in every case improper; and I would have considered it more candid to have made a frank avowal of a consequence which he must have foreseen as
necessarily resulting from his premises. They who contend,” says he,“ that nothing less can justify subscription to the thirty-nine articles, than the actual belief of each and every separate proposition contained in them, must suppose, that the legislature expected the consent of ten thousand men, and that in perpetual succession, not to one controverted proposition, but to many hundreds. It is difficult to conceive how this could be expected by any who observed the incurable diversity of human opinion upon all subjects short of demonstration.”
This reasoning, in as far as it proves any thing, proves too much; for if human opinion on all subjects short of demonstration has an incurable diversity, will not this diversity prevail with regard to what Mr. Paley considers to be the intentions of the legislature in excluding from the offices of the church? Articles of belief, according to this view, must in every case be improper, since there will always be a diversity of opinion among mankind on subjects that admit only of moral or probable evidence.
In this opinion I cannot concur. For, though it were admitted, that the articles which form the terms of communion in the reformed churches are too complex, and that they embrace as fundamental, what, among sincere believers in christianity, may fairly be the subject of diversity of opinion ; still I should contend, that as there are first principles in all human science, so there must be in religion elementary truths, which, though better understood at one time than at another, are in all ages and for ever the same. Science, because it is susceptible of improvement,