Fourth. The history of the Presbyterians answers a question that may be properly asked of the creed-abolitionist; namely, What bond is left to hold a religious community together? The bond, in their case, simply was voluntary adhesion and custom. A religious community may hold together, like a political party, with only a vague tacit understanding. When a body is once formed, it has an outward cohesion, which is quite enough for maintaining it in the absence of explosive materials. The established Churches could retain their historical continuity under any modification of the articles. By the present system, they have been habituated to take their creed as their legal definition; for that they could substitute their history and framework.
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[MODES OF TRANSITION FROM THE PRESENT SYSTEM.]
Various modes have been suggested for making the transition from the present system.
One way is, to fall back upon the Bible as a test. This is the same as no test at all. A man could not call himself a Christian minister, if he did not accept the Bible in some sense; and it would be obviously impracticable to frame a libel, and conduct a process for heresy, on an appeal to the Old and New Testaments at large. The Bible may be the first source of the Christian faith, but other confluent streams have entered into its development; and we must accept the consequences of a fact that we cannot deny. However much religion may have to be broadened and liberalised, the operation cannot consist in reverting to the literal phraseology of the Bible.
A second method is, to prune away the portions of the creed that are no longer tenable. It could not have been intended by the original framers of the creeds, that they should remain untouched for centuries. With many Churches, there was a clear understanding that the formulas should be revised at brief intervals. The non-established Churches show a disposition to resume this power. The United Presbyterian Church of Scotland has had the courage to make a beginning; still, relief will not in this way be given to minorities, and small changes do not correspond to the demands of new situations.
A more effectual mode is to discourage and suspend prosecutions for heresy. The practice of heresy-hunting might be allowed to fall into disuse. Instead of deposing heretics, the orthodox champions should simply refute them.
In the Church of England, in particular, a change of the law may be necessary to give the desired relaxation. The judges before whom heretics are tried are very exacting in the matter of evidence, but they cannot stop a prosecution made in regular form. The Church of Scotland has more latitude in this respect, and has already given indications of entering on the path leading to desuetude.
[Footnote 17: See, at the end, Notes and References on the history and practice of Subscription and Penal Tests.]