I recently read a very troubling, yet extremely revealing quote in John Macleod’s Scottish Theology. In the context, Macleod is speaking of the theological decline of the 19th century Free Church of Scotland and the erosion of confessional subscription in her ranks. To illustrate the Zeitgeist of the time, he quotes a famous anti-confessionalist by the name of James Martineau, who apparently was an influential Unitarian. It shows the essential grudge he and others had about the time-honored practice of ecclesiastical subscription to subordinate standards:
My protest is against a Church fixing its creed, i.e., against a prior generation of life tenants prejudging the convictions of a posterior and using their own rights to the restriction of their posterity’s. I know well that to believe a thing true is to believe it immutable; that earnest conviction naturally excludes all suspicion of possible change and carries in it a confidence of spreading to other minds and attaining to universal recognition. Within the limits of his proper rights I would have every man surrender himself freely to these impressions, utter them and act upon them. But limits there certainly are to his proper rights in this respect; arising partly from the presence around him of his fellows within precisely similar feeling attached to different beliefs; partly from the certainty of successors whose faculties and opportunities are not his to mortgage.
Macleod then judiciously observes, “That is to say, men may think for themselves that they have found the truth, but the Church must be ever learning and never able to come to the knowledge of it” (Scottish Theology, pp. 316-17).
As if the quote were not damning enough, it bears a disturbing resemblance to the words of a famous Deist, Thomas Jefferson. Writing to James Madison in 1789, Jefferson wrote:
I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self evident, ‘that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living’: that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it. The portion occupied by an individual ceases to be his when himself ceases to be, and reverts to the society. . . . [thus] it may be proved that no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law. The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct. They are masters too of their own persons, and consequently may govern them as they please.