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Charles Buck Theological Dictionary [1]

A sect of protestant dissenters from the church of Scotland, who take their title from and profess to follow the example of the ancient Bereans, in building their system of faith and practice upon the Scriptures alone, without regard to any human authority whatever. As to the origin of this sect, we find that the Bereans first assembled as a separate society of Christians, in the city of Edinburgh, in the autumn of 1773, and soon after in the Parish of Fettercairn. The opponents of the Berean doctrines allege that this new system of faith would never have been heard of, had not Mr. Barclay, the founder of it, been disappointed of a settlement in the church of Scotland. But the Bereans in answer to this charge appeal not only to Mr. Barclay's doctrine, uniformly preached in the church of Fettercairn, and many other places in that neighbourhood, for fourteen years before that benefice became vacant, but likewise to two different treatises, containing the same doctrines, published by him about ten or twelve years before that period.

They admit, indeed, that previous to May 1773, when the general assembly, by sustaining the king's presentation in favour of Mr. Foote, excluded Mr. Barclay from succeeding to the church of Fettercairn (notwithstanding the almost unanimous desire of the parishioners) the Bereans had not left the established church, or attempted to erect themselves into a distinct society; but they add, that this was by no means necessary on their part, until by the assembly's decision they were in danger of being not only deprived of his instructions, but of being scattered as sheep without a shepherd. And they add, that it was Mr. Barclay's open and public avowal, both from the pulpit and the press, of those peculiar sentiments, which now distinguish the Berean, that was the first and principal, if not the only cause of the opposition set on foot against his settlement in Fettercairn. The Bereans agree with the great majority of Christians respecting the doctrine of the Trinity, which they hold as a fundamental article; and they also agree in a great measure with the professed principles of both our established churches respecting predestination and election, though they allege that these doctrines are not consistently taught in either church.

But they differ from the majority of all sects of Christians in various other important particulars, such as,

1. Respecting our knowledge of the Deity. Upon this subject they say, the majority of professed Christians stumble at the very threshold of revelation; and, by admitting the doctrine of natural religion, natural conscience, natural notices, &c. not founded upon revelation, or derived from it by tradition, they give up the cause of Christianity at once to the infidels; who may justly argue, as Mr. Paine in fact does in his Age of Reason, that there is no occasion for any revelation or word of God, if man can discover his nature and perfections from his works alone. But this the Bereans argue is beyond the natural powers of human reason; and therefore our knowledge of God is from revelation alone, and that without revelation man would never have entertained an idea of his existence.

2. With regard to faith in Christ, and assurance of salvation through his merits, they differ from almost all other sects whatsoever. These they reckon inseparable, or rather the same, because (say they) "God hath expressly declared, he that believeth shall be saved; and therefore it is not only absurd but impious, and in a manner calling God a liar, for a man to say I believe the Gospel, but have doubts, nevertheless, of my own salvation." With regard to the various distinctions and definitions that have been given of different kinds of faith, they argue that there is nothing incomprehensible or obscure in the meaning of this word as used in Scripture; but that as faith, when applied to human testimony, signifies neither more nor less than the mere simple belief of that testimony as true, upon the authority of the testifier, so, when applied to the testimony of God, it signifies precisely "the belief of his testimony, and resting upon his veracity alone, without any kind of collateral support from concurrence of any other evidence or testimony whatever." And they insist that, as this faith is the gift of God alone, so the person to whom it is given is as conscious of possessing it as the being to whom God gives life is of being alive: and therefore he entertains no doubts either of his faith or his consequent salvation through the merits of Christ, who died and rose again for that purpose. In a word, they argue that the Gospel would not be what it is held forth to be, glad tidings of great joy, if it did not bring full personal assurance of eternal salvation to the believer; which assurance, they insist, is the present infallible privilege and portion of every individual believer of the Gospel.

3. Consistently with the above definition of faith, they say that the sin against the Holy Ghost, which has alarmed and puzzled so many in all ages, is nothing else but unbelief; and that the expression "it shall not be forgiven neither in this world nor that which is to come." means only that a person dying in infidelity would not be forgiven neither under the former dispensation by Moses (the then present dispensation, kingdom, or government of God, ) nor under the Gospel dispensation, which, in respect of the Mosaic, was a kind of future world or kingdom to come.

4. The Bereans interpret a great part of the Old Testament prophecies, and in particular the whole of the Psalms, excepting such as are merely historical or laudatory, to be typical or prophetical of Jesus Christ, his sufferings, atonement, mediation and kingdom; and they esteem it a gross perversion of these psalms and prophecies to apply them to the experiences of private Christians. In proof of this, they not only urge the words of the apostle, that no prophecy is of any private interpretation, but they insist that the whole of the quotations from the ancient prophecies in the New Testament, and particularly those from the Psalms, are expressly applied to Christ. In this opinion many other classes of protestants agree with them.

5. Of the absolute all-superintending sovereignty of the Almighty, the Bereans entertain the highest idea, as well as of the uninterrupted exertion thereof over all his works, in heaven, earth, and hell, however unsearchable by his creatures. A God without election, they argue, or choice in all his works, is a God without existence, a mere idol, a nonentity. And to deny God's election, purpose, and express will in all his works is to make him inferior to ourselves. As to their practice and discipline, they consider infant baptism as a divine ordinance, instituted in the room of circumcision; and think it absurd to suppose that infants, who all agree are admissible to the kingdom of God in heaven, should, nevertheless, be incapable of being admitted into his visible church on earth.

They commemorate the Lord's supper generally once a month; but as the words of the institution fix no particular period, they sometimes celebrate it oftener, and sometimes at more distant periods, as it may suit their general convenience.

They meet every Lord's day for the purpose of preaching, praying, and exhorting to love and good works. With regard to admission and exclusion of members, their method is very simple: when any person, after hearing the Berean doctrines, professes his belief and assurance of the truths of the Gospel, and desires to be admitted the Gospel, and desires to be admitted into their communion, he is cheerfully received upon his profession, whatever may have been his former manner of life.

But is such a one should afterwards draw back from his good profession or practice, they first admonish him, and, if that has no effect, they leave him to himself. They do not think that they have any power to deliver a backsliding brother to Satan; that text, and other similar passages, such as, "Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, " &c. they consider as restricted to the apostles, and to the inspired testimony alone, and not to be extended to any church on earth, or any number of churches or of Christians, whether decided by a majority of votes, or by unanimous voices. Neither do they think themselves authorized, as a Christian church, to enquire into each other's political opinions, any more than to examine into each other's notions of philosophy.

They both recommend and practise, as a Christian duty, submission for lawful authority; but they do not think that a man by becoming a Christian, or joining their society, is under any obligation by the rules of the Gospel to renounce his right of private judgment upon matters of public or private importance. Upon all such subjects they allow each other to think and act as each may see it his duty; and they require nothing more of the members than a uniform and steady profession of the apostolic faith, and a suitable walk and conversation. It is said that their doctrine has found converts in various places of Scotland, England, and America; and that they have congregations in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Paisley, Stirling, Crieff, Dundee, Arbroath, Montrose, Fettercairn, Aberdeen, and other towns in Scotland, as well as in London, and various places in England.

For farther particulars of the doctrines of this sect, see the works of Messrs. Barclay, Nicol, Brooksbank, and M'Rae.

See also Mr. A. M'Lean's Treatise on the Commission, first edition, p. 88. in which Mr. Barclay's notion of assurance is combated.

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature [2]

a small sect of dissenters from the Church of Scotland, who profess to follow the example of the ancient Beroeans ( Acts 17:11) in building their system upon the Scriptures alone, without regard to any human authority. The sect was founded in 1773 by a clergyman named Barclay, who was excluded from the parish of Fettercairn. They hold the Calvinistic creed, with the following peculiarities:

1. They reject natural religion as undermining the evidences of Christianity.

2. They consider faith in Christ and assurances of salvation as inseparable, or rather as the same thing, because (say they) "God hath expressly declared, he that believeth shall be saved; and therefore it is not only absurd, but impious, and in a manner calling God a liar, for a man to say I believe the Gospel, but have doubts, nevertheless, of my own salvation."

3. They say that the sin against the Holy Ghost is nothing else but unbelief; and that the expression, "It shall not be forgiven, neither in this world, nor that which is to come," means only that a person dying in unbelief would not be forgiven, neither under the former dispensation by Moses, nor under the Gospel dispensation, which, in respect of the Mosaic, was a kind of future world, or world to come.

4. They interpret the Old Testament prophecies, and especially the Psalms, as typical or prophetic of Christ, and never apply them to the experience of private Christians. There are still some congregations of Bereans in Scotland, and a few, it is believed, in America. (See Hutchinsonians).