Christian Unity without Doctrinal Indifferentism

john_witherspoon_smToday is the last day of my summer study leave. I didn’t make as much progress on my doctoral work as I would have liked, but I did get a draft of a chapter written and a good working start on another chapter. I don’t suspect much of what goes into a dissertation is interesting to the average reader (or almost any reader!), but perhaps these few paragraphs on John Witherspoon’s passion for church unity (1723-94) will tickle one or two fancies. If not, chalk this post up to my version of “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.”


For all his polemical instincts, there was a deeply ecumenical side to Witherspoon, but it was an ecumenicity with a definite center and with defined boundaries.

On the one hand, Witherspoon was happy to profit from and commend a wide array of Christian authors outside the circles of strict Presbyterianism—from evangelical favorites like the Dissenter Phillip Doddridge[1] and the Nonconformist Richard Baxter,[2] to theologically middle-of-the-road bishops like Gilbert Burnet[3] and John Tillotson,[4] to the English scholar William Warburton,[5] to the Catholic (and strongly Augustinian) Port Royal Jansenists.[6] Witherspoon believed that men “often differ[ed] more in words than in substance.”[7] He adopted Doddridge’s words as his own: “If this doctrine, in one form or another, be generally taught by my brethren in the ministry, I rejoice in it for their own sakes, as well as for that of the people who are under their care.”[8] Truth was truth whether it came from Anglicans, Catholics, or Dissenters.

Although he remained staunchly committed to and invested in Presbyterianism his whole life, Witherspoon was not a man of narrow party spirit. In his Treatise on Regeneration (1764), Witherspoon noted, “I am fully convinced, that many of very different parties and denominations are building upon the one ‘foundation laid in Zion’ for a sinner’s hope, and that their distance and alienation from one another in affection, is very much to be regretted.”[9] In his farewell sermon in Paisley, Witherspoon warned against “going too much into controversy” and developing “a litigious and wrangling disposition” that would lead Christians—and here he is quick to add the qualification “I mean real Christians”—into “innumerable little parties and factions.”[10] He longed for the day when the “unhappy divisions” among “protestants in general” would be “abolished” and those truly centered on Christ crucified would “be no longer ranked in parties and marshaled under names” but only strive with each other to see “who shall love our Redeemer most, and who shall serve him with the greatest zeal.”[11]

This ecumenical streak in Witherspoon was not borne out of doctrinal indifferentism. His desire for unity, for example, did not encompass Socinians, Pelagians, Catholics or any other group holding religious views he deemed antithetical to true biblical Christianity.[12] Witherspoon had no patience for the latitudinarian kind of unity he found among his colleagues in the Moderate Party.[13] In conjunction with the publication of his St. Giles’ sermon before the SSPCK (1758), Witherspoon penned a robust defense for pointing out error entitled “An Inquiry into the Scripture Meaning of Charity.”[14] With characteristic verve, Witherspoon attacked the increasingly popular notion among enlightened clergy that “charity was a far more important and valuable bond among Christians than exact agreement on particular points of doctrine.”[15] For Witherspoon, Christian unity was not rooted in downplaying doctrinal distinctives (least of all among those who could not be counted true believers), but in stressing the theological similarities that existed among born again Christians from a variety of denominations. “No man, indeed,” Witherspoon wrote, “deny it to be just, that every one should endeavor to support that plan of the discipline and government of the church of Christ, and even the minutest parts of it, which appear to him to be founded upon the word of God. But still sound doctrine is more to be esteemed than any form.”[16]

Living in an era of evangelical awakening across the English speaking world and rank hypocrisy (as he saw it) in the Scottish Kirk, Witherspoon wanted Christians of a “truly catholic disposition” to “discover a greater attachment to those even of different denominations, who seem to bear the image of God, than to profane persons, be their apparent or pretended principles what they will.”[17] This was Witherspoon’s way of simultaneously distancing himself from the half-hearted confessional subscription of the Moderate Party and from the Scottish ministers (inside and outside the established church) who railed against any cooperation with George Whitefield.[18] In an address before the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr (October 9, 1759), Witherspoon urged his ministerial colleagues to turn their “zeal from parties to persons,” that is, to be on the look out for “the wolf in sheep’s clothing” and to be eager to embrace those from any party who know “the power of true religion.” Given the many spiritual dangers in the world and the spiritual degradation in the church, it was time for “the sincere lovers of Christ, of every denomination” to “join together in opposition to his open enemies and treacherous friends.”[19] Witherspoon’s vision was not for the end of separate ecclesiastical bodies, but for true believers—which, for him, was roughly equivalent to sincere Reformation-rooted evangelicals—to be united around the core tenets of the Christian faith.


[1] Works, 1:98, 451.

[2] Works, 2:255, 422, 433; 3:275-276.

[3] Works, 2:548.

[4] Works, 2:431.

[5] Works, 1:85; 2:348.

[6] Works, 3:152, 276.

[7] Works, 1:226.

[8] Works, 1:98-99. The Doddridge quotation comes from his Practical Discourses Regeneration in Ten Sermons Preached at Northampton (London: M. Fenner and J. Hodges, 1742), x. For more on Doddridge’s important role in reflecting and shaping theological and philosophical thought in the eighteenth century see Richard A. Muller, “Philip Doddridge and the Formulation of Calvinistic Theology in an Era of Rationalism and Deconfessionalization,” in Religion, Politics, and Dissent, 1660-1832: Essays in Honor of James E. Bradley, eds. Robert D. Conwall and William Gibson (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2010), 65-84; Robert Strivens, “The Thought of Philip Doddridge in the Context of Early Eighteenth-Century Dissent” PhD dissertation: University of Stirling, 2011.

[9] Works, 1:199.

[10] Works, 2:547.

[11] Works, 2:474-475.

[12] “As to Socinians and Pelagians. . . .I never did esteem them to be Christians at all” (Works, 1:88). “I do freely acknowledge, as I have formerly done, that I never did esteem the Socinians to be Christians” (Works, 2:377). Speaking of Catholic missionaries among the North American Indians, he remarked, “But being once converted, not the Christian faith, but to the Romish superstition, they are inviolably attached to the French interest” (Works, 2:364). Witherspoon’s strong, and at times harsh, anti-Catholicism cannot be separated from geo-political concerns. He had no qualms about praying for the Protestant cause throughout Europe and entreating God’s favor in defeating the Catholic imperial power that he considered (and virtually every Protestant considered) a threat to religious and political liberty (Works 2:429; 474). In a fast day sermon from February 16, 1758, Witherspoon enthused with thanksgiving for the surprising victories recently won by Frederick the Great at Rossbach and Leuthen during the Seven Years War (Works, 2:461). If British Protestants were agreed on anything in the second half of the eighteenth century it was that the Catholic Church, and those states aligned with it, were enemies of British freedom, British prosperity, British religion, and the British crown (See Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism, 49; Kidd, George Whitefield, 263).

[13] Works, 3:257.

[14] Works, 2:369-384.

[15] This summary statement comes from Anhert, The Moral Culture of the Scottish Enlightenment, 38; for more on the importance of “charity” during the Scottish Enlightenment in contrast to the Orthodox insistence on right doctrine, including Witherspoon’s role in that insistence, see 37-45, 81, 106-108.

[16] Works, 1:253. What Witherspoon meant by “sound doctrine” is clear from the rest of the paragraph where he speaks of the gospel work of convicting and converting sinners.

[17] Works, 1:253-254. The reference to the image of God in this context is likely not a general comment about all human being, but an aspect of Witherspoon’s conviction that the “doctrines only come from God, which tend to form us after the divine image” (Works, 2:390).

[18] For a discussion on confessional subscription see Collin Kidd, “Scotland’s Invisible Enlightenment: Subscription and Heterodoxy in the Eighteenth Century Kirk” RSCHS (2000), 28-59. Fawcett provides a useful overview of Whitefield’s falling out with the Erskines and how this influenced the Secession churches and the national Kirk (The Cambuslang Revival, 182-201). See also the pamphlet A Fair and Impartial Account of the Debate in the Synod of Glasgow and Air (1748), where a complaint is brought against two ministers from the Presbytery of Glasgow for giving “considerable countenance to the ministrations of a celebrated stranger” (i.e., they opened their pulpits to Whitefield). Special thanks for Dr. David Gibson of Trinity Church (Aberdeen) for tracking down this pamphlet at the University of Aberdeen and sharing with me his notes.

[19] Works, 2:412-413.