By David Dickson
Truth’s Victory Over Error was the first published commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith. It was written by a contemporary of the Westminster Assembly, and a close ministerial associate of the Scottish commissioners to the Assembly. David Dickson (1589‑1662) was the son of a wealthy Glasgow merchant. He studied at Glasgow College under the great exegete Robert Boyd of Trochrig, and in 1610 was elected regent to instruct in Greek. He became minister of Irvine, in Ayrshire, in 1618, but in 1622 was suspended by Archbishop Spottiswood because he refused to conform to the Articles of Perth. These were an attempt by the king to impose Episcopalian worship on Scotland. The articles to which Dickson refused to conform provided for kneeling rather than sitting at the Lord’s Supper, private communion, baptism not withheld longer than one Sunday and administered privately where necessary, the participation of bishops in confirmation, and the observance of church holy days such as Christmas and Easter.
In 1622 Dickson was sent into exile in the North of Scotland, but within about a year was permitted to return to Irvine, where a notable revival began. Dickson began preaching on the street on market day, and many were brought under conviction of sin. One of the fruits of Dickson’s pastoral labors was “The Sum of Saving Knowledge,” a presentation of the gospel which he co‑authored with James Durham, and which is still printed in Scottish editions of the Westminster Standards. It was a model used by ministers in catechising their flocks.
Resistance to the king’s efforts to dictate a ceremonial worship culminated in the Glasgow Assembly of 1638, and the signing of the National Covenant. Dickson was a prime mover in the preparations for the Assembly, drafting a paper insisting that representative ruling elders should be commissioned to the Assembly along with the ministers. He was moderator of the General Assembly in 1639, when the king made important concessions to the popular uprising.
In 1640 Dickson was appointed Professor of Divinity at Glasgow University. In 1650 he was transferred to the corresponding chair of theology at Edinburgh University, which he held until his death in 1662. A large proportion of the Church of Scotland’s ministers in the era of the Westminster Assembly thus received their theological training from Dickson. Dickson also contrived a scheme for ministers of the church to publish plain expositions of portions of Scripture, and so together to provide a commentary on much of the Bible. The Banner of Truth has made a number of these expositions available once more: George Hutchison on John, James Ferguson on the Epistles of Paul, Alexander Nisbet on I and II Peter, James Durham on the Song of Solomon, and Dickson on Matthew, Hebrews and the Psalms; the commentary on Psalms (1653‑1654) is a superb exposition of Christian experience.
It was in the first two years at Edinburgh, 1650‑1652, that Dickson delivered his lectures on the Westminster Confession of Faith. These were apparently the basis for his printed commentary on the Confession, which was published posthumously in 1684. The book has not been reprinted since 1726. Dickson died soon after the Restoration of the Stuart monarchs. Charles II was sweeping away the legislation that had established Presbyterian worship and church government. But Dickson knew the cause was not lost: “What is come of all the blood and prayers of many years, now when all is overturned? Says he ‑ There is the Confession of Faith and Catechisms; and these are more worth than all the blood or prayers that have been!”
Excerpted below are Dickson’s comments respecting the regulative principle, and its application to matters of worship and polity. Note that in commenting on the Confession’s reference to “the singing of psalms,” Dickson identifies the inspired character of these psalms when he refers to them as “being a part of Scripture.”
Of Good Works
Are good works only such as God hath commanded in his holy Word, and not such as without the warrant thereof are devised by men, out of blind zeal, upon pretence of good intention? Yes,Micah 6:8 , Romans 12:2 , Hebrews 13:21 , Matthew 15:9 with I Samuel 15:21‑23, Isaiah 29:13 , I Peter 1:18, Romans 10:2 . Well then, do not the Papists err, who maintain that not only such works are good which are done according to the will and law of God, but others also, which are commanded by the public authority of the church, though over and above what the law of God requires? And that those also are good works which are done out of a good intention, to advance God’s glory, or to perform worship to him, though they be not commanded by God? Yes, they err.
By what reasons are they confuted? (1) Because God expressly commands that every man must not do that which seems good in his own eyes, but only such works as he hath commanded, and must neither add thereto, nor diminish from it, Deuteronomy 12:8 and 32, John 1:7 , Proverbs 30:6 , Revelation 22:18 . (2) Because the Lord openly testifies that in vain they do worship him, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men, not requiring that will‑ worship which fantastic men would give him, Isaiah 1:13 , Matthew 15:9 , Micah 6:6 ‑8, Colossians 2:23 . (3) Because the scribes and Pharisees are severely rebuked by Christ, that made the commandment of God of no effect by their traditions, Matthew 15:6 . (4) Because the law of God is the perfect rule and square of good works: “To the law, and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them,” Isaiah 8:20 . (5) Because without faith it is impossible to please God, Hebrews 11:6 . But faith hath always a respect to the Word of God.
Of Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience
Is God alone the Lord of the Conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are in anything contrary to his Word, or beside it, in matters and faith or worship? Yes, James 4:12 , Acts 4:19 , Acts 5:29 , Matthew 23:8 ‑10, II Corinthians 1:24, Matthew 15:9 . Well then, do not the Papists err, who contradict this, both in doctrine (because they teach that the Pope of Rome, and bishops in their own dioceses, may by their own authority, beside the Word, make laws which oblige and bind the conscience, under the pain of everlasting death) and in practice (because they have obtruded, and do obtrude, many ecclesiastical rites and ceremonies, as necessary in worship, without any foundation in Scripture)? Yes, they err.
By what reasons are they confuted? (1) Because there is one law‑giver, who is able to save and to destroy, James 4:12 . Therefore no Pope, no prelate, nor any mere man, can be a law‑ giver. (2) Because Christ rejects the commandments of men from the worship of God, Matthew 15:9 . (3) Because the apostles refused to obey the orders of the council, since they were contrary to the commands of God, Acts 4:19 and 5:29. (4) Because the Lord threatens to do a marvelous work among his people, because they drew near to him with their mouth (as the most part of the ceremonial service is but a drawing near to God with the mouth), but had their hearts removed far from him, Isaiah 29:13 ‑ 14. (5) Because Christ expressly forbids such subjection and obedience to the commands of men, Matthew 23:9 ‑10, I Corinthians 7:23. (6) Because the apostles themselves forbid all will‑ worship, such as the Popish ceremonies are, Colossians 2:18and 21‑23.
(8) Because the apostle Paul withstood these false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out his liberty, which he had in Christ Jesus, that they might bring him into bondage, to whom he gave place by subjection, no not for an hour, that the truth of the gospel might continue: where he lays so much weight upon Christian liberty that, if that were taken away the truth of the gospel would perish likewise, Galatians 2:4 ‑5. (9) Because the apostle commands believers to stand fast in their liberty, wherewith Christ hath made them free, and not to be entangled again with the yoke of bondage, Galatians 5:1 . (10) Because ceremonies are superstitious, being a vice opposite to religion in the excess, commanding more in the worship of God than he requires in his worship.
Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day
Is the acceptable way of worshiping the true God instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture? Yes, Deuteronomy 12:32 , Matthew 15:9 , Acts 17:25 , Colossians 2:23 ,Exodus 20:4 ‑6.
(1) Because it is expressly against the second command, Exodus 20:4 ‑5. (2) Because God in infinite, immeasurable, incomprehensible and spiritual: and therefore nothing can represent him, as the prophet well infers, Isaiah 40:18 and 25. (3) Because every representation of God, by graven images or pictures, is a most disgraceful changing of the glory of the incorruptible God,Romans 1:23 . (4) Because images and pictures of this kind are lies and vanities, which the Lord abhors, and mocks at with an holy scorn, Isaiah 44:9 ‑18. (5) Because the Lord expressly forbiddeth the Israelites to represent him under any form or shape, for (saith the text) “Ye saw no manner of similitude on the day that the Lord spake to you in Horeb, out of the midst of the fire,” Deuteronomy 4:15‑20.
(6) Because though the Israelites worshiped the true God by an image (for Aaron built an altar, and made proclamation, and said, “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord”), yet are they accused of the sin of idolatry, and for that cause severely punished, Exodus 32:21 , 27 and 35. (7) Because Jeroboam and the ten tribes, who worshiped the true God, by the golden calves set up at Dan and Bethel (for the worship of false gods by images was afterwards brought in by Ahab, who is therefore said to have provoked the Lord more than all the kings of Israel before him, I Kings 16:32‑32), are accused for the sin of idolatry, and are severely threatened, I Kings 12:29‑30 and 13:2, which threatening was put in execution by Josiah, II Kings 23:15‑16 and 20. (8) Because the apostle says, “We ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold or silver, or stone graven by art and man’s device,” Acts 17:29 .
Is the singing of Psalms with grace in the heart a part of the ordinary worship of God? Yes (Colossians 3:16 , Ephesians 5:19 , James 5:13 ). (1) From the practice of Christ and his apostles, Matthew 26:30 . From the example of Paul and Silas, Acts 16:25 . From Moses and the Israelites, Exodus 15 . (2) Because the singing of Psalms was commanded under the Old Testament, and that not as a type of any substance to come, nor for any ceremonial cause. Neither is it abrogated under the New Testament, but confirmed, Psalm 30:4 , 149:1. (3) From the general and universal commands in the New Testament, Ephesians 5:19 , Colossians 3:16, I Corinthians 14:15.
(4) Because the apostle James says, “Is any man afflicted, let him pray. Is any man merry, let him sing Psalms,” James 5:13 . The meaning is not, that none should sing but such as are merry: for then none should pray but such as are afflicted. (5) Because by singing of Psalms we glorify God, we make his praise glorious. We edify others with whom we sing, as well as we edify ourselves. So the end to be proposed in singing is teaching and admonishing one another, in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, Colossians 3:16 . Lastly, we cheer and refresh ourselves by making melody in our hearts to the Lord, Ephesians 5:19, which ariseth first from our conscientious going about it, as a piece of worship to God, and in so doing we are accepted in that. Secondly from its being a part of Scripture, appointed for his praise whether it agree with our case or not. That being the end wherefore it was designed to be sung is a sufficient warrant for our joining in the singing thereof.
Of Church Censures
Hath the Lord Jesus as King and Head of his Church appointed therein a government in the hands of church officers, distinct from the civil magistrate? Yes, Isaiah 9:6‑7, I Timothy 5:17, I Thessalonians 5:12, Acts 20:17 ‑18, Hebrews 13:7, 17 and 24, I Corinthians 12:28, Matthew 28:18 ‑20. Well then, do not the Erastians and others err, who maintain that in the Holy Scripture there is no particular form of church government set down and appointed by Christ? Yes, they err.
By what reasons are they confuted? (1) Because the Lord Jesus Christ hath delivered to the ministers of his church, as to his own delegates and ambassadors (and therefore according to his own laws) the whole power of governing the church, which he himself received from the Father, to be managed and put in execution in his own name and authority, John 20:21 , Matthew 28:19 , Acts 1:2 , Ephesians 4:7 ‑8 and 11. (2) Because all the substantials of church government under the New Testament, which either concern ministers, ordinances, censures, synods, councils, and their power, are proposed and set down in Scripture, namely in the third chapter of the First Epistle to Timothy, in Acts 15 , and in I Corinthians 14:26 and 40. (3) Because the Lord Jesus Christ hath looked to the good of his church no less under the New Testament than under the Old. Therefore, since the church under the Old Testament had a most perfect form of government prescribed to it, and since there is as great need and necessity of church order and discipline under the New Testament as was under the Old, it must follow that there is a pattern and form of church government no less set down and prescribed under the New Testament than was under the Old, Hebrews 3:1‑2 and 4‑5, 13:8, I Corinthians 5, I Timothy 5:20 and 1:20. (4) The end of the church government is spiritual, namely the gaining of men’s souls to Christ. But nothing that’s merely of human authority can reach this end, Matthew 18:15 ‑17.
(5) Because all the parts of church government are particularly set down in Scripture. As first, those things which concern the key of doctrine, as public prayer, and giving of thanks (I Timothy 2:12, I Corinthians 14:14‑16), singing of Psalms (Ephesians 5:18 ‑19, Colossians 3:16 ), public reading of the Word, preaching, and expounding the same (Acts 6:4 , 13:15 and 17, 5:21, II Corinthians 3:14, Matthew 18:19 ‑20, II Timothy 4:11, Hebrews 6:1 , Galatians 6:6 ). Secondly, those parts likewise which concern the key of discipline, namely the ordination of presbyters, with the imposition of hands of the presbytery (I Timothy 4:14, 5:22, Titus 1:5 ,Acts 14:21 and 23). Thirdly, the authoritative giving of judgment and sentence concerning doctrine, and that according to the Word (Acts 15:15 , 24 and 28). Fourth, Admonition and public rebuking of those who have offended (Matthew 18:15 ‑17, I Thessalonians 5:14, I Timothy 5:20). Fifth, the excommunicating of those who are contumacious and ungodly, and who are convicted of manifest crimes and scandals (Matthew 18:17 , Titus 3:10, I Timothy 1:20, I Corinthians 5:2‑5). Lastly, the receiving again into the fellowship of the church persons cast out by excommunication, having testified their repentance, II Corinthians 2:6‑9.