THE REVOLUTION SETTLEMENT AND THE REFORMED PRESBYTERIANS
1690 is where I mark the beginning of the Age of Denominationalism, because from here on out we begin to see the churches fragment at an accelerating rate into smaller and smaller parties, until we have reached the state things are in today--where there are perhaps hundreds of fairly orthodox Reformed denominations. Due to the incredibly, unprecedentedly fragmented nature of the church during this time period, our de jure line of authority is going to become increasingly linked to one small group among many other small groups. This is sometimes noted in order to bring ridicule on the very concept of a de jure line of authority: "How ridiculous it is to say that the entire de jure church of Christ exists in some paltry denomination in Scotland that is simply one tiny part of the universal church!" It does seem silly to say this, and yet it no less follows logically from the principles of presbyterian church government. The silliness of our current situation does not arise from the wrongness of our principles, but rather from the untenablenss of the current state of fragmentation in which the visible church currently exists. Perhaps having to face the ridiculousness of this situation can be a motivator to us to realize how crucial it is that we do what we can to solve this problem and end the Age of Denominationalism.
In 1690, William of Orange re-established Presbyterianism in Scotland. All of the ministers and the majority of the people of Presbyterian conviction at this time accepted this situation and returned from their persecuted field meetings to the establishment. However, a sizable minority of Presbyterians refused to accept the proffered establishment on the grounds that it was greatly imperfect and would require sin to join into. This minority had no ministers for a time, but was eventually able to establish itself as a full-fledged denomination. They became known in time as the Reformed Presbyterian Churches. So now, from 1690 on, we have two groups that both claim to be the true continuation of the historic Church of Scotland of the Reformation: the Revolution Settlement established Church of Scotland, and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland. I favor the claim of the Revolution Settlement church for a number of reasons. I don't have time here to do full justice to this issue (as with many of the other issues brought up in this article), but I can lay out informally some of my thinking:
First of all, the Revolution Settlement was indeed imperfect. William of Orange should have established Presbyterianism in the rest of the British dominions as he did in Scotland (or at least that should have been his goal). Also, William failed to rescind the infamous Acts Recissory, by which Charles II had nullified all the Second Reformation attainments in the state. It could also be argued that the Revolution Settlement church could have been better and clearer in enforcing discipline of officers in certain cases, and some would argue that it should have been stronger and louder in its support for Second Reformation attainments. However, not all imperfections are adequate to justify separation from a church body. As long as the church remains constitutionally sound, basically faithful, and allows opportunities for those in it to work for reform without requiring them to compromise their conscientious principles, unity can be preserved. I believe that to have been the case, so far as I have been able to determine thus far, with the Revolution Settlement church. For one thing, imperfections in William of Orange's administrations in the state are distinct from how the church was doing. For example, although William did not institute Presbyterianism in Britain, the church was not required to agree with his failure to do so. For another example, although William did not rescind the Acts Recessory, the church was not required to agree with that, and it continued to regard the decisions of the Second Reformation Church of Scotland to be in force and not rescinded. With regard to imperfections in the church, if there were failures in discipline, yet protests were allowed to be made with regard to them, and the constitutional basis of the church remained intact. In short, from what I have been able to determine thus far, it does not seem that sin was required of members or officers to remain in the establishment at that time.
Also, the Reformed Presbyterians, in addition to lacking sufficient reasons to refuse to accept the proffered establishment, added a doctrinal position to their constitution that did require sin of members and officers. The RPs embraced the error of Cameronianism, and required commitment to that error of members and officers. In short, Cameronianism holds that non-Christian states, or states that act to some degree in unlawful ways (such as by breaking covenants, persecuting innocent people, etc.), can have no lawful authority from God, and so we are free to refuse to acknowledge their claims of authority. This violates biblical principles laid out in the Bible (see, for example, Romans 13:1-7) as well as in the Westminster Confession (see WCF 23:4).
Therefore, for these sorts of reasons, I favor the claim of the Revolution Settlement church to have preserved the proper de jure line of authority. (For more on this subject, see Matthew Vogan's article, "The New Reformed Presbyterian Constitution," found here, as well as this article on the history of the Reformed Presbyterian churches and how they have moved away from their original positions on some things over the years.)
THE FIRST AND SECOND SECESSIONS AND AMERICAN PRESBYTERIANISM
The next disruption in the Church of Scotland occurred with the Secession of 1733. The issue here had to do with the concept of "patronage." As the Wikipedia article just cited puts it, "The First Secession arose out of an Act of the General Assembly of 1732, which was passed despite the disapproval of the large majority of individual presbyteries. This restricted to Heritors and Elders the right of nominating Ministers to vacancies where the Patron had not nominated within six months." Basically, patronage was a violation of the independence of the church from the state. It allowed the state to set up rules for the appointing of ministers in churches without the agreement of the church or the church members, thus savoring of Erastianism. As you can see from the Wikipedia article, a complex series of events developed from the General Assembly Act of 1732, which resulted in a separate church, known at first as the Associate Presbytery, being formed with the intention of continuing the true line of the Church of Scotland. Later on in 1761, a second group broke off from the Church of Scotland, also over patronage, that called itself the Presbytery of Relief. Both the first and second secession movements themselves split into further divisions, with the ultimate result that all of them ended up merging with other bodies eventually so that there is no Scottish church today that traces itself through that line, at least in any pure way, though there are churches today that exist from earlier mergers with secession churches. The whole history of the secession movement, as well as of the various Scottish Presbyterian denominations in general, is very complicated and can be difficult to follow, as this chart makes clear.
I have mixed feelings with regard to the secession churches. I agree with their stand against patronage (as does pretty much everyone else today), but I am not certain if the secessions were fully justified. There are nuances here I feel a need to get a better grasp of before being more confident. However, in a practical sense the question is moot, for all the churches that are in any way in the line of the secession churches existing today have by this time compromised their faith and practice to such a degree that they have forfeited their right to the de jure line, thus returning it, for practical purposes, to the continuing line of the established Church of Scotland in 1733. The issue would be more pressing if there were secession churches existing today that were on par in terms of faithfulness with other existing Scottish Presbyterian churches.
I should also mention that it is around this time that we see the rise of the American Presbyterian tradition--the tradition that has led to the modern PCUSA as well as to more faithful Reformed denominations such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church in America. The first American presbytery came into being in 1706. The American Presbyterian tradition illustrates the attitude of denominationalism that came to possess the church to a great degree. The American presbyteries and synods never even tried to maintain formal communion with the Church of Scotland. From the very beginning, they went their own way and did their own thing. The American Presbyterian churches were formed from a mix of Scottish and Scotch-Irish immigrants and descendents who were more faithful to the traditions of the Church of Scotland and local New England congregationalists who were more loyal to the New England congregationalist tradition. This resulted in a weakness in the full presbyterian-ness of American Presbyterianism. At the beginning, they adopted no confession of faith at all, clearly neglecting the call to uniformity of the Solemn League and Covenant. Shortly thereafter (due to pressure from the Scots and Scots-Irish), they received loosely the Westminster Confession. In 1788, the American churches modified the Westminster Confession, bringing it in line with the latest American fashions in terms of disestablishmentarianism and denominationalism. I do not consider the American Presbyterian churches ever to have had a claim to be in the line of de jure authority.
THE FREE CHURCH OF SCOTLAND AND THE FREE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OF SCOTLAND
The next significant disruption in the Church of Scotland, and the largest and most important by far in general, was the Disruption of 1843. Once again, state interference in the church was at issue. The Disruption split the church into two parties--the continuing established church and the Free Church of Scotland. It is often difficult to weigh the decisions of those involved in these kinds of church splits, as the situation is often so complicated and sometimes there can be more than one right thing to do, or different ways of doing the right thing. It could be argued that those who left the establishment in 1843 should have stayed and simply refused to comply with state interference with the church, which would have probably resulted in them being defrocked and perhaps even jailed one by one. Instead, they chose to form themselves into a group and leave the establishment voluntarily (though not out of a desire to do so for its own sake) in order to continue the independent authority of the church. From what I can see, I believe that their decision was justified, and all those on the side of truth ought to have followed them. But even if we say they were being schismatic, the established Church of Scotland (which still exists today) has so departed from its biblical foundation as to certainly forfeit its claim to de jure authority, thus moving us over to the Free Church line anyway (unless sin is required to join with them, which I do not believe to be the case).
The Free Church of Scotland itself began a period of declension not long after the Disruption, leading eventually to a Declaratory Act being passed by the General Assembly which vitiated the constitutional commitment of the church to the Westminster Confession and required church officers to tolerate errors they had sworn to oppose. This Declaratory Act was passed in 1892. The Act compromised a number of the Calvinistic articles of the Confession as well as providing a general clause by which toleration was granted to disagreements with the Confession which "do not enter into the substance of the Reformed faith," this being left to be determined by the church courts on a case-by-case basis. (See here and here for more on this.) As a result of this, a number of ministers broke with the majority body to continue the true line of the Free Church in a separate organization which came to be called The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. (See here for their Deed of Separation.) I believe their split was justified, as the Declaratory Act had changed the constitution of the Free Church and required compliance from the officers of the church, which they could not give without compromising their integrity.
A number of people opposed to the Declaratory Act nevertheless stayed in the Free Church, hoping to bring reform eventually. In 1900, however, the Free Church merged with the United Presbyterian Church, thus even further abandoning its historic principles, and a minority stayed outside this merger with the intent of continuing the true line of the Free Church of Scotland. Due to winning a law suit, this minority group got to keep the name and thus to this day is called The Free Church of Scotland. So after 1900, there were two groups which were very similar to each other, both of which had recently split from the larger body of the earlier Free Church of Scotland and claimed to be continuing its true line--The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland. I believe that the Free Church ought not to have formed a separate organization when they broke off from the original Free Church, but they should have joined with the Free Presbyterian Church. As the FP split in 1893 was legitimate, there was no need to start a new organization. Thus, I regard the Free Church line as schismatic.
In the latter-half of the twentieth century, the Free Church began to fall into decline in some areas. In 2000, due to what was claimed to be a botched discipline case illustrating the encroaches of liberalism in the Free Church, a group of ministers left the Free Church to form the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing). The Free Church has further declined. A couple of years ago, they began to allow uninspired hymns in worship, and there are other signs of increasing declension. If the Free Church (Continuing) had not been formed, it would be easy to declare the Free Church line dead. The FCC, however, is significantly more faithful, and in many ways very close to the Free Presbyterian Church (FPCS).
EXAMINING THE EXISTING ALTERNATIVES TO THE FPCS
Throughout the twentieth century, there were a couple of groups that split off from the FPCS or were formed partly in disagreement with them--namely, the Presbyterian Reformed Church (1931) and the Associated Presbyterian Churches (1989). The former broke over disagreement with the FPCS's position that the use of public transportation on the Sabbath to attend worship constitutes a violation of the Sabbath. The latter broke off in connection with disagreement over the FPCS's discipline of an elder for attending a Roman mass in his official capacity.
Another denomination recently formed that is very close to the historic Presbyterian position of the FPCS is the Westminster Presbyterian Church in the United States (2006).
Most of the existing denominations, including those calling themselves "Reformed," have removed far enough from the purity of the faith and practice of the historic Church of Scotland that it is clear they cannot claim the de jure line of legitimacy and authority, as officers would have every right to protest their constitutions and split from them, and purer denominations would be sinful to join with them. There are only a few denominations existing today that are plausible candidates to be lawful heir to the historic Church of Scotland, from my point of view. I would include among these the FPCS, the FCC, the Presbyterian Reformed Church (PRC), the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland (RPCS), and the Westminster Presbyterian Church of the United States (WPCUS), all of which I've mentioned above. All of them, I think, fail to present a greater claim to the proper de jure line than the FPCS. Let's look at some of their reasons for separation from the FPCS, doctrinally and historically, and see why I think so.
The FCC is probably the closest of all to the FPCS. They have the same doctrinal standards, and much of the same history and historical testimony. I believe the FPCS has the better historical claim, in that it was formed earlier and had a right and duty to separate from the pre-1900 Free Church body. As I mentioned earlier, I think the minority Free Church, from which the FCC is descended, ought to have joined the already-existing FPCS when they came into being and there was no good reason for them not to do so. The FCC is a bit looser on certain aspects of church discipline than the FPCS, such as not enforcing the biblical command for women to wear head coverings in the church. They are concerned that the FPCS is too strict and legalistic, but I'll come back to that in a moment. Suffice it to say for now that I don't think the FPCS is too strict in any way that would require members or officers to sin, and so there is no legitimate justification for the FCC to continue separate from the FPCS, while the FPCS, I think, in addition to being the default because of its stronger historical claim, has reason to be concerned to join with a church that does not enforce something like the head coverings command. It is possible that some of these differences in practice could be overcome, but whether or not that can happen, as the FPCS has the better historical claim, its overall claim to be the proper de jure line beats the FCC.
The PRC came into being, as I mentioned, because they disagreed with the FPCS disciplining members who use public transport to get to church on the Sabbath. While I personally recognize some degree on nuance on that subject, and I'm sure the FPCS does as well (such as making room for necessity and mercy), yet I think the FPCS's position is within the realm of reasonableness in doing what they do. Therefore, I do not think that disagreement with them on this point justifies a separate existence. And so I think the PRC is schismatic. (See this recent article by Matthew Vogan for some FPCS argumentation on this point.)
The RPCS seems similar to the FCC in that it is constitutionally just about identical to the FPCS, but it is a bit looser on discipline in some areas. The RPCS comes from the Reformed Presbyterian heritage, which used to be Cameronian. It is actually a minority remnant of the original RPCS which merged with the Free Church in the 1870s. But in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it, too, like the earlier group, abandoned its historic commitment to Cameronianism (or at least it no longer pushes it very much) and to many of the reasons the RPs broke from the rest of the Church of Scotland in 1690. Because of its earlier errors and the changes it has made (which, in themselves, are certainly changes for the better), the Revolution Settlement church line has a better historical claim, and as there is no doctrinal superiority the RPCS has over the FPCS, I regard the FPCS claim as stronger.
The WPCUS was formed to preserve a historic Presbyterian heritage in opposition to movement away from this in other American Presbyterian churches. I do not believe that it has any viable doctrinal or practical justification to remain separate from the FPCS, and as it started in 2006, it certainly doesn't have a better historical claim than the FPCS. Therefore, I consider it schismatic as well.
DEFENDING THE FPCS FROM CONCERNS ABOUT LEGALISM
The main concern other denominations express against the FPCS is that it is too strict and legalistic in some of its rules and discipline. The Sabbath public transport issue is one example. Here are a couple more examples: 1. Officers in the FPCS will tend to discipline women for wearing trousers. This is in connection to Deuteronomy 22:5: "The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man, neither shall a man put on a woman's garment: for all that do so are abomination unto the Lord thy God." Many people, though not all, in the FPCS view trousers as men's clothing. Is this legalistic? Surely it is not legalistic to enforce God's commands. But are trousers really men's clothing? Well, historically they were. Are they today? Kind of, kind of not, depending on exactly who you talk to, when you talk to them, etc. Although the principle that women should not wear men's clothing is a universal principle, what clothes constitute men's clothing is somewhat a culturally-determined phenomenon. The FPCS realizes that, which is why they have not made any explicit written rule deciding what is and what is not men's clothing. We need to look to the culture we are in to determine what is men's clothing in our cultural context. Here in America, the cultural evaluation outside the church is ambiguous, as it is within much of the church. But we must also take into account the internal culture of particular churches. Certainly, within the FPCS, the culturally prevailing view is that trousers are men's clothing. For women to wear them in that context, then, is to take the attitude of flouting Deuteronomy 22:5. Whether or not we personally see trousers as men's clothing, I see no basis for considering the prevailing cultural attitude within the FPCS on this point today as constituting an intolerable, unjust legalism that justifies splitting the church. You can find here the official statement from the FPCS Synod on women's and men's clothing, and here you can find a more full discussion of their position, including how it is typically applied to the trousers issue.
2. Another example is that the FPCS mandates the use of the King James Bible in its public worship services. But surely it is the church's role to instruct people on how to read the Bible, and to provide them with guidance in terms of which translations are best and most trustworthy. The FPCS holds that the manuscript tradition received by the church historically should be considered the best tradition because it is the one God has preserved in the church over the centuries. I think this is correct. If the church, then, wishes to adopt an official translation to use in its worship services, in an effort to guide the church into the best translation and use of the Bible, I see nothing wrong with that. Even if I thought the KJV wasn't the best version currently available, a point on which I currently have no strong opinions, disagreement on that point surely wouldn't justify splitting the church. I should, in that case, simply work for change from within.
I could go over further examples of this sort of thing, and there are others that could be brought up, but I think they tend to fall into the same basic category: The FPCS is more cautious and has a tighter discipline in certain areas than most other denominations today (in fact, its practice tends to be more historical on many of these matters), but I do not think that their discipline exceeds the reasonable limits of what the church is authorized to do, and I do not think that anything they do, even if we disagree with some aspects of it, constitutes sufficient justification for splitting the church, and therefore they do not shake the strong historical and doctrinal claim of the FPCS to be the proper heir to the de jure line of the church.
Therefore, on the basis of all of these things, I am currently of the opinion that the FPCS has the best claim to a de jure right to separate existence, and therefore it is the denomination all people ought to join, whenever it is practically possible to do so. "Joining" them could mean becoming a member of the FPCS in the usual sense, or it could mean forming (or reforming) a church in another nation that is in full agreement and communion with the FPCS under a binding presbyterian international council. Either way, we ought to be in full communion with the FPCS, and out of communion with other schismatic denominations, as much as we reasonably can, all things considered, without shirking other duties we may have.
UPDATE 6/16/14: I have recently come across a nice, succinct statement discussing the Free Church of Scotland's position on the continuing obligation of the Solemn League and Covenant and on the Revolution Settlement, which argues that the Revolution Settlement church was the correct church to join in 1690 (in opposition to those who later became the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Scotland). The article makes some great points in favor of tracing the de jure line through the Revolution Settlement church.
The article, among other useful references and links, provides a link to a publication by Alexander Shields, a covenanter minister who had reservations about the Revolution Settlement and associations with those who stayed outside the established Revolution church but who eventually decided to join with it, putting forward his arguments for joining the established church and not continuing in separation from it. The article also provides a link to an article by Matthew Vogan in the Scottish Reformation Society Historical Journal on Alexander Shields. Both articles provide further useful discussion of why the de jure line should be traced through the Revolution Settlement church.
UPDATE 11/10/14: See here for more comments, from myself and from John Calvin, which relate to the charge of "legalism" sometimes made against the FPCS. The church cannot add man-made traditions to the worship and service of God, but it has the right and duty to enforce biblical principles in light of its evaluations of how those principles ought to be applied in the context of current cultural attitudes and practices.