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The Scottish Covenants – an Historical Insight


A Short Appraisal of the Scottish Covenants of the 17th Century

The King’s Confession

Properly entitled ‘A Short and General Confession of the True Christian Faith and Religion According to God’s Word and Acts of Our Parliaments’, it was frequently known as the ‘King’s Confession’, or the Negative Confession, due to its denial of all religion not in accord with Knox’s Scottish Confession of 1560

John Craig drew up the Confession in 1581, when the Duke of Lennox arrived back in Scotland from France, and it seemed as if Popery would re-emerge.  The Confession was signed by James VI & I, and his household, and was very Protestant in character.  All parish clergy, and later all graduates were required to sign the Confession.  In connection with the subject under discussion in this thesis, its relevance lies in that it later became the basis of the National Covenant of 1638.

The National Covenant

Signed at Greyfriars Church in 1638, the actual text of the covenant falls into three main parts:-

1. A reproduction of the King’s Confession (Negative Confession) of 1581.

2. A recapitulation of legislation passed since that time confirming the position of the Reformed Kirk

In this section the covenant recalls the laws by which the practice of Popery and prelacy were banned in Scotland

3.  The Covenant Proper.

The covenant restated the Scottish opposition to Popery, declared a resistance to any change in patterns of worship, which had not been decided upon by a free meeting of the General Assembly and pledged the subscribers to a solemn defence of their religion against all who would come against it.  The Covenant was not anti-monarchal.

The Solemn League and Covenant & Westminster Assembly

Drawn up and subscribed in 1643, the objective of the Solemn League and Covenant was to unite Scotland, England and Ireland in matters of faith.  It was a compact between the English Parliamentarians and the Scottish Presbyterians, and its opening paragraphs laid out its aims and objectives, namely:

1. The Glory of God and advancement of Christ’s Kingdom

2. The honour and happiness of the King and his heirs

3. The peace, safety and liberty of the realm, bearing in mind the diverse plots and conspiracies, which had beset both land and church, and remembering the state of the church. (The Covenant document describes the Church and state of Ireland as deplorable, the Church and state of England as distressed, and the Church and state of Scotland as dangerous.)

There follow six numbered paragraphs, setting out the means by which the spiritual conditions of the three kingdoms would be rectified, the Lord’s Name glorified, and true religion be restored.  In these paragraphs, the signatories agree:

1. To pursue the Reformed Faith, as practiced by the Church of Scotland, and to so reform the churches of England and Ireland, in doctrine, worship, practice and government, so as to conform these churches to Scottish practice.  The object of this alignment was that God would take delight to presence Himself in the midst of His assembled people.

2. To work toward the complete extirpation of Popery, prelacy, superstition, heresy, schism, profanity and any other thing contrary to true Godliness.

3. To preserve the rights and privileges of Parliament and defend the position of the King.

4. To support the detection, prosecution and trial of any ‘evil instrument’ who would hinder the reformation of true religion, cause division among the King’s people and the King, or between the Kingdoms, or create factions among the people.

5. To use their best endeavours to promote peace for all time.

6. To enter into this covenant with a whole heart, with no extra provisions, no wavering, no defaulting, each assisting the other in its proclamation and in the achievement of its aims without division.

The Solemn League and Covenant’s concluding paragraph, reminded the signatories that it was signed in the presence of the God who searches hearts, and who is the great Judge of men.  It closes with a prayer for God’s blessing to be upon those who support its endeavours.

It will be obvious that the objective of this new Covenant was to create a situation in the British Isles, similar to that which pertained in Geneva, where Godly government prevailed, and where the church met in unity to worship God, to hear His Word and to rightly administer the Sacraments.  It would be a world where the nation as a whole would embrace Christianity, and the people would know the blessing of God, because of their Godly situation.  It should, however, be noted that Henderson, who was largely responsible for the drafting of this Covenant, was perfectly willing to sacrifice cherished Scottish doctrinal standards in the interest of unity!  He said, “This reformation and unity must be brought to pass with common consent, and we are not to conceive that they (England and Ireland) will embrace our form, but a new form must be set down for us all.”  Henderson would of course have insisted that any such new form must be consistent with Scripture.

The practical and immediate result of the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant was the Westminster Assembly of Divines, which met at Westminster Abbey by order of the English Parliament in 1643.  One hundred and twenty ministers attended, including eight from Scotland, who had no voting rights.  Among their number were Samuel Rutherford and Alexander Henderson.  The King declared the assembly illegal, and as a result around thirty Anglican scholars refused to attend.  The aim of the assembly was to devise a means by which the Presbyterian system of Scotland could be extended throughout the rest of the King’s realm.  On doctrine the Assembly was almost unanimous, but on church government they found areas of disagreement.  Here are the main conclusions of the Assembly:

* Doctrine and Worship.  The Assembly prepared a document, now known as the Westminster Confession of Faith, which contained a Directory of Public Worship, the Confession of Faith, a Larger Catechism and a Shorter Catechism.  This Confession was a subordinate standard, never intended to replace or equal scripture, but to provide guidelines to preserve the church from error.  A shared Psalter was proposed, and a new metrical edition was prepared.  The Scottish church later modified this for use in Scotland.  Because the Scottish Presbyterians (and English Puritans) accepted Calvin’s doctrine of the Regulative Principle in Scripture, no form of musical instrument was admitted to public worship, and psalms were sung unaccompanied.  This was not the case however in Anglican churches, where the doctrine of Luther prevailed.  Luther believed, contrary to Calvin, that anything may be admitted to worship provided that it is not forbidden by Scripture.  (Thus art, sculpture and music flourished in Lutheran and Anglican churches, while Presbyterian churches remained simple and austere meetinghouses)

Church Government.  The Scots and the Puritans preferred the Presbyterian system of government, but there were other factions in the Assembly who proposed other methods.  There were CONGREGATIONALISTS and BROWNISTS, who believed that the local church should have the sole power to ordain and appoint ministers, on the basis that the church should be a pure called out assembly of the redeemed, and as such should take decisions on a Biblical and spirit-guided basis.  There were ERASTIANS, who believed that the government of the church was a civil matter.  Neither of these groups had much support, but through political intrigue they managed to keep the matter of government from being satisfactorily settled.  Despite pressure from Parliament to reach an Erastian conclusion, the Assembly concluded, “The Lord Jesus, as king and head of his church, hath therein appointed a government, in the hand of church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate.”  The Assembly never addressed the thorny issue of church discipline.  Parliament issued a decree to form Presbyteries in 1646, but they imposed enough obstacles to impede implementation.

* Toleration.  For Knox, and his followers in successive generations, Christian freedom did not mean the openness to all forms of worship that we tolerate today.  For the men of the Covenant, religious freedom was simply the freedom to worship God in obedience to his word, and in accordance with his precepts.  The sixteenth century Covenanters had no concept of religious toleration for Romanists, heretics or even Anabaptists and Separatists.  All these were obstacles to the rightful unity of the church of Christ and were to be deplored.  This is not to imply that Knox and his followers believed that they had achieved perfection in church matters or doctrine, but it did imply that any church, even the Scottish church, when it finds something in its doctrine which is contrary to Scripture, must bring that practice into conformity with Scripture.

Not everyone agrees that this was wholesome.  “The Church of Rome claims that the preservation of the oneness of the body of Christ belongs essentially to her.  The Church of England has sometimes appeared to make a similar claim in England.  And Puritans and Presbyterians have also made the same mistake.  To be in Scotland in the seventeenth century and not to be in the national Presbyterian Church was regarded as being in schism.  Behind this mistake of course, lies the idea that the unity of the church requires one visible organisation and one over-all authority (whether Pope, Archbishops or General Assemblies): not to be within that organisation is to be an opponent of Christian unity.” (Quoted from Moore, ‘Our Covenant Heritage)

From → Covenanters, History

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