by Travis Fentiman¹
Below is a brief summary. For a longer, Biblical and historical articulation and defense of the view, with a select annotated bibliography, please see the more extensive article.
The majority opinion in the Free Church of Scotland¹ on social covenanting in short is that:
1. We uphold the Biblical principle of social covenanting.
2. The moral and spiritual principles of the Solemn League and Covenant continue to bind Scotland and her churches, while the historical circumstances and details do not.
3. We fulfill all the Biblical, and moral and spiritual principles of the Solemn League and Covenant through our subscription to the original Westminster Standards and our work for Biblical reformation in the land.
Below is a brief delineation of the view:
(1) We uphold the Biblical principle and obligation of social covenanting, that we are morally required in appropriate circumstances to covenant together to seek reformation in church and society, per Josh. 24:25; 2 Kings 11:17; Isa. 44:5; Jer. 50:5; 2 Chron. 15:15, etc. The Solemn League and Covenant (S.L.&C.) is a godly example of such.
(2) The moral and spiritual principles of the S.L.&C. continue to bind Scotland as a civil nation today and the Scottish churches that have descended from the Church of Scotland (who originally swore to the S.L.&C in 1643). Note section one of the S.L.&C., ‘that we and our posterity after us may as brethren live in faith and love,’ and section five, ‘that they [the three kingdoms] may remain conjoined in a firm peace and union to all posterity‘. This continued descent of the moral and spiritual obligations of covenants is demonstrated from scripture by the teachings of Joshua 9:18,19 and 2 Samuel 21:1-2, amongst other passages.
(3) The Free Church of Scotland upholds all the spiritual and morally obligatory principles of the S.L.&C. (and previous Scottish covenants) in having adopted the Westminster documents as its constitutional standards (in 1646), in its successive office bearers’ several vows including full subscription to promote, teach and defend the original Westminster Confession of Faith, and in our work for Biblical reformation in the land, thus fulfilling all the moral and spiritual responsibilities of the covenant.
(4) The S.L.&C never binds its people, all successive generations, or incoming office bearers, to a continual, successive, re-swearing of the covenant through all ages of history. Note that in scripture, where one does see social covenants that morally oblige successive generations, there is no obligation, or example, of all descendants to each individually swear to that social or national covenant.
Thus, while the S.L.&C. remains part of the morally binding legislation of the church (ever since 1643), the Free Church of Scotland does not continually re-swear to the S.L.&C. or have its incoming office bearers swear to it.
(5) The historical substance of the S.L.&C. was essentially fulfilled in the sitting, documents and actions of the Westminster Assembly (which the covenant was the catalyst for), and by the Church of Scotland’s adoption and enforcement of them there-on-out.
God’s discipline for the remainder of what lacked and remained unfulfilled in the S.L.&C. was taken out on the following generation, during the turbulent civil wars and other disorders of England, and notably in the “Killing Times” of the 1680’s in Scotland.
(6) That changed historical circumstances relieves one from covenants conditioned upon those historical circumstances (though the covenant itself does not explicitly say such) is taught in scripture in Ezekiel 17:11-21.² Israel covenanted to be subject to Babylon, which God enforced as long as those historical circumstances remained, However, after the Babylonian Captivity, God no longer enforced that covenant as it no longer applied. It did not bind future generations.
This principle is also taught in Hebrews 12:27,
“And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.”
Thus, the Westminster Confession teaches in Chapter 19.4:
“To them also, as a body politick, he gave sundry judicial laws, which expired together with the state of that people, not obliging any other now, further than the general equity thereof may require”
(7) The historical details and circumstances of the S.L.&C. no longer exist, and thus are not binding today.
The S.L.&C. itself includes the express obligation to promote “…the advancement of… the honour and happiness of the king’s majesty and his posterity…” in the opening paragraph and “to preserve and defend the king’s majesty’s person and authority,” in the third section. In the context of the 1640’s, amidst turbulent commotions and competitors, this specifically meant the Stuart Dynasty of Charles I. By means of the Glorious Revolution of 1689, William of the Dutch House of Orange (not of the English House of Stuart) was made King over the three kingdoms.
In 1689, no longer could the S.L.&C. be sworn to upon its stated historical terms and thus it expired with regard to its historical details.
Further, the “three kingdoms” (England, Scotland, Ireland), as mentioned in the S.L.&C., no longer exist. See The Act of Union of 1707 and the Act of Union of 1800 which combined the three kingdoms into the one United Kingdom of today. Also, the United Kingdom has no current “King” as mentioned in the S.L.&C.
Thus office bearers in the Free Church of Scotland do not vow to the S.L.&C., as it would violate their vow to the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 22.4, which says that, “an oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation.” It also violates Westminster Confession 22.3 and 22.7 which says that it is sinful to take an oath or vow that one cannot fulfill.
(8) The Glorious Revolution of 1689, though with impurities, reconstituted the Church of Scotland upon its scriptural and historic terms, namely the 1646 Westminster Standards and a Presbyterian Form of Government, fulfilling the moral and spiritual obligations of the S.L.&C.
(9) Thus, the Revolution Church of Scotland, in all her impurities, being the lawful, constitutional national church of Scotland, was the bride of Christ in the land, His body, in union with Him, and countenanced by Him as such with His presence. Thus the moral principles of the S.L.&C., in binding one to the one Church of Christ in the land with all her defects, binds one to the Revolution Church of Scotland post-1689. This was argued most fully by the Church of Scotland minister Thomas Boston in his 1708 sermon, The Evil, Nature and Danger of Schism.
(10) The S.L.&C. no where makes itself a term of communion, and thus those who make it so go beyond the S.L.&C. The purpose and nature of the S.L.&C. was to unify the covenanters to the peace, purity and unity of the Church, inclusive of those who had not sworn to the S.L.&C. Its purpose and nature was not to exclude all those that had not sworn to the S.L.&C.
(11) The most extensive biblical argumentation against separating from impure churches was made in the 1640’s by Samuel Rutherford: Against Separatism, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.
The covenanted Scottish divines did not call their covenanted brothers in England to separate from their churches, even though the Anglican Church was Erastian, Prelatic, did not hold to the Westminster Standards, lacked purity of worship, discipline, etc., all in much worse severity than the Church of Scotland in 1689. The Scottish divines of the second reformation also enjoyed preaching in their churches and communing with them, and encouraged them to reform their impure mother-church. The second reformation divines recognized that to separate oneself from the Bride of Christ, Christ’s body, is schism.
(12) The Church of Scotland progressed until the Disruption of 1843, when it was legally and spiritually continued by the Free Church of Scotland. The Free Church of Scotland (continuing) continued the Free Church through the unconstitutional proceedings of 2000. The Free Church of Scotland (continuing) is the legal and spiritual heir of the Scottish Reformation. There have always been a variety of opinions on some of these matters in the Free Church, and we welcome any who desire to join with us.
(13) We desire, if the Lord in His providence should provide the circumstances, to further bind ourselves by a social covenant with contemporary churches and nations in seeking a further scriptural reformation in our lands according to the Word of God.
For a more extensive Biblical and historical articulation and defense of the majority historic view here described, with a select annotated bibliography, please see the longer and more full article.
“Pray I for these… that they all may be one.”
¹ This is not any official, legislatively binding position of the Free Church, but only the majority opinion within it. Other opinions exist in the Free Church as well, which there has always been liberty for. The position described though, is the general position of the Free Church Act of 1851 (which has been printed at the front of our edition of the Westminster Standards), the basis for union between the Free Church and the Seceders and Covenanters of 1852 and 1876 respectively (see points 18 and 19 of the longer article), and is documented throughout the writings of the numerous Free Church historians and theologians in the bibliography below. The article was written and copyrighted by Travis Fentiman, a licentiate in the Free Church of Scotland (continuing). Feel free to contact him through the Suggest Improvements page with any thoughts.
² This point has been made previously by the anonymous document, Succinct Rebuttal to the Neo-Steelite Thesis