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Reform Magazine | November 29, 2023

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When Jesus divided the Church

When Jesus divided the Church

Three hundred years ago this month, the English Presbyterian Church was split by the Salters’ Hall debates. Robert Pope explains their problem

At the heart of Christianity stands the figure of Jesus – not only what he said and did but also the question of who he was and is. Quite how Jesus should be understood has, over the centuries, provoked debate and disagreement. Three hundred years ago, in the early months of 1719, Protestant Dissenters in England found themselves embroiled in passionate theological controversy. Though the specific issues, as well as the religious and social context, are far removed from those of our day, the effect of this controversy was far-reaching and we continue to live with its consequences.

Lying behind the debates was the emergence of unorthodox views about the Trinity. In 1710, James Peirce, an able and determined Presbyterian, claimed that while the Established Church contained people who rejected Christ’s divinity (known as Socinians) there were none among the Dissenters. And yet by September 1718, Peirce, ministering in Exeter, found himself under suspicion. Some Presbyterian leaders feared their church was succumbing to Arianism, a denial of the Trinity. (Arians, condemned as heretics at the Council of Nicaea in 325, believed that the Son, though divine, is subordinate to the Father.) So the Exeter Assembly required ministers in Devon and Cornwall to make a Trinitarian declaration. Peirce confessed instead ‘the Son and the Holy Ghost to be divine persons, but subordinate to the Father’. The self-appointed ‘Committee of Thirteen’ at Exeter then appealed to the General Body of the Three Denominations in London for advice as to how to deal with Peirce and other erring ministers.

The General Body’s committee was offered a ‘Paper of advices for promoting peace’ by the prominent Presbyterian MP for Berwick, John Shute Barrington. He insisted that great care be exercised when making accusations of heresy and that Scripture, as the perfect rule of faith, not the creeds or confessions formulated by human beings, should be the test of orthodoxy. The committee approved the ‘advices’ but sought the wider approval of the whole body of London ministers, which gave rise to a series of debates at the Salters’ Hall…

Robert Pope is Director of Studies in Church History and Doctrine at Westminster College, Cambridge

This is an extract from an article that was published in the February 2019 edition of  Reform

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