We normally associate the term “subscription” with signing up to receive certain periodicals, journals, and/or magazines to which we’ve “subscribed.” In religious or ecclesiastical parlance, however, the terms “subscription” or “subscribe” when tied to a doctrinal creed or confession refers to one’s affirmation of, agreement with, and commitment to a fixed body of doctrines or articles of faith that are officially representative of a church’s or denomination’s beliefs. It’s worth noting that the term “creed” derives from the Latin credo, meaning, “I believe.” The issue of subscription is important for churches or ecclesiastical bodies that are self-consciously “confessional,” especially as it relates to the level of commitment these institutions expect of their officers and teachers.
In the space below, we’ll examine some of the key terminology associated with confessional subscription. Then we will attempt to provide a survey of the major types (or levels) of confessional subscription that have been used by churches and denominations.
Terminology Associated with Subscription
Before we survey the various types of subscription that have been or are currently practiced today, we need to be conversant with some of the technical terms associated with confessional subscription.
Quia vs Quatenus
These are two Latin terms. The first, quia, means “because”; the second, quatenus, means “insofar as.” Thus, a quia-subscription entails subscribing to a Confession because it is biblical, whereas a quatenus-subscription entails subscribing to a confession insofar as it is biblical. Traditionally, the first is associated with tighter views of subscription and the second with looser views. However, as we’ll note, there are some forms or shades of subscription that actually involve a combination of the two ideas.
Ex animo or “Good Faith”
This Latin phrase ex animo refers to the attitude and motive of the one subscribing to the creed. It basically denotes “from the heart” or the idea of “sincere.” A similar Latin phrase, bona-fide, translated, “good faith,” is also employed to convey this idea. In other words, when a person subscribes to a creed or confession ex animo or in “good faith,” he is affirming belief in and commitment to the particular statement of faith sincerely and without any intention to deceive others.
Scruples or Exceptions
Mental reservations about or objections to certain words, phrases, or doctrines in a given creed or confession are called “scruples” or, more commonly today, “exceptions.” Many forms of subscription require the subscriber or candidate to publicly identify his exceptions to words or statements in a confession. It’s important to note that when a person takes exception to a term or a doctrine, he’s not necessarily asserting that the terminology or doctrine is unbiblical. Exceptions can also mean that the statement is a matter of opinion that should not be elevated to the level of a public confession. Exception simply implies that the statement is not confessed. It is not necessarily a “no vote.” It may be viewed, rather, as an “abstention” on that particular statement.
Animus imponentis is another Latin phrase used in discussions about confessional subscription. In this case, the attitude and motive of the one subscribing is not in view. Instead, animus imponentis has reference to the intention and expectations of the church or denomination using the particular creed or confession. The term literally means “the intention of the mind or heart.” Applied to confessional subscription, it refers to the imposing body’s understanding of and intention behind its use of its confession.1
For example, the Kirk (Church) of Scotland officially endorsed the Second Helvetic Confession in 1566, which had been drafted and published in Switzerland. However, the Scottish Kirk officially took exception to the Second Helvetic’s allowance of certain Christian festivals.2 Apparently, the Scots had a more narrow understanding of the Regulative Principle of Worship. So they added a marginal note at the point where mention is made of these special Christian holy days.3 In doing so, they were exercising the right to determine how they, as a national church, wanted to use that particular confession.
A modern example of animus imponentis can be seen in “The Position Paper on the Regulative Principle of Worship” of the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America (ARBCA).4 One of the primary purposes of the paper is to clarify what the Confession teaches on the topic of corporate worship. But the paper also serves to explain to the member churches how the association intends to understand and apply the Confession’s teaching with reference to issues like exclusive psalmody, musical instrumentation, and special music. In this case ARBCA decides to take a slightly looser view of the RPW than that which their Puritan and Particular Baptist forefathers would have endorsed.5
What is a “Doctrine”?
In discussions and debates on confessional subscription, one frequently finds the term “doctrine” being used, particularly with respect to what kind of exceptions may or may not be allowed. Some types of subscription allow the minister or candidate to take exception to words or phrases but not to doctrines, whereas other types of subscription allow for doctrinal exceptions as well. Unfortunately, some of this discussion and debate is clouded and undermined by a failure on both sides to clearly define what each party means by a “doctrine.” Thankfully, in a public debate between Morton Smith and William Barker, the following agreed upon definition was proposed:
Every declaratory statement states something true or false. And every declaratory statement in the Standards is either one doctrine or several doctrines.6
The reader should note that the definition above does not limit a “doctrine” to the overall doctrinal theme of a given chapter, article, section, or paragraph within the confession. Rather, a doctrine is a declaration or proposition that affirms something as true or false. Hence, we can say, for example, that the doctrine of the trinity in the Westminster Confession (2.3) consists of several doctrinal declarations or propositions. This definition of a “doctrine” is important since a proponent of full subscription (Smith), which disallows doctrinal exceptions, and an advocate of system subscription (Barker), which allows for limited doctrinal exceptions, mutually endorsed it. It is the definition I will employ when making distinctions between the major types of confessional subscription below.
Basic Types (or Levels) of Subscription
Most churches and denominations require a higher level of commitment to their doctrinal standards from their leaders and teachers than they expect from their members.7 Historically, there have also been different degrees or levels of subscription expected of church officers, teachers, or candidates for the ministry.
On the one hand, some advocate modes of subscription that allow for a looser or more flexible commitment to the church’s, denomination’s, or organization’s official creedal statements. On the other hand, others advocate a mode of subscription that requires complete or nearly complete agreement with the doctrinal standards in view. Those who support looser forms of subscription often express a concern to protect the subscriber’s liberty of conscience and/or the primacy of Scripture’s authority. Those who support tighter forms of subscription are concerned to protect the church from too much doctrinal latitude that could open the door to serious theological error or heresy.
Below I attempt to distinguish the primary types of subscription that have been used in the past or are being used in the present by ecclesiastical institutions. I need to preface my “taxonomy” with some qualifications and a disclaimer. First, some of the names assigned to a particular position come not from the one who endorses it, but from those who oppose it. Therefore, some of the common titles for this or that kind of subscription may seem pejorative. Second, some of the titles given to a position have a kind of “official status” (i.e., the church or denomination that endorses it has officially adopted that nomenclature). But other titles for this or that kind of subscription are not necessarily “official titles.” Rather, they are non-official attempts to describe the nature of the kind of subscription in view. Third, sometimes the advocates and/or the opponents of a given type of subscription define it differently and at times seem to equivocate (i.e., give a definition of it in one place that’s narrower or broader than they give in another place). Accordingly, by way of disclaimer, the reader shouldn’t be surprised if the distinctions I make below are characterized to some degree by generalizations.
With the clarifications and disclaimer aside, let’s survey the primary types of confessional subscription. In some cases, I’m going to assign a type a title that may or may not be its “official” name but which, I think, closely captures the sense. I will begin with the tighter forms of subscription first and move toward the looser forms, since this is generally the direction creedal subscription has moved historically.
Absolute subscription requires the individual to subscribe to the entire creed or confession ex animo and without any exceptions to wording, phrases, or doctrines. This view was adopted and practiced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, and Scottish Presbyterians. Accordingly, one might legitimately refer to it as the classical Protestant view of subscription.8 For example, the Dutch Reformed Classis of Alkmaar adopted the following subscription formula in 1608:
We the undersigned preachers, under the jurisdiction of the Classis of Alkmaar, declare and witness that the teaching which is in that catechism adopted unanimously by the Reformed [the Heidelberg Catechism] and which is comprehended in the 37 articles of the Dutch Reformed Churches [the Belgic Confession] agrees in everything with the Holy Word of God, and consequently with the foundation of the teaching of salvation. We promise to maintain this same teaching, through God’s grace; and openly to reject teachings that are brought against or oppose it; and with all diligence and faithfulness according to our ability to stand against them, as we affirm the same with our signatures.9
According to Robert Godfrey, “This earliest form of subscription expresses a characteristic of the Dutch Reformed tradition, namely that all of the doctrines of the confessional standards are accepted as part of one’s subscription. No exceptions are permitted.”10 It should also be noted that it was usually national churches that adopted this form of subscription—at least in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—and it was compulsory for all ministers.
In his paper entitled “Confessional Subscription,” James Renihan introduces the category of “historical subscription” and likens it to the view of “Strict Constitutionalism” that is used in American Constitutional parlance. According to Renihan, this view focuses on the original intent of the framers of the creed or confession in view and requires the subscriber to agree and affirm that intent. One might argue that this is approach is simply “absolute subscription” applied in a later historical context.
By way of illustration, Renihan uses an anecdotal reference to the late John Gerstner. Gerstner, a Reformed classical apologist, allegedly suggested that a Reformed presuppositional apologist like Cornelius Van Til could not hold to a strict historical view of the Westminster Confession since, in Gerstner’s view, the seventeenth century Puritans affirmed the classical view of apologetics.
So, apparently, the historical view requires one not merely to agree with the basic sense of the words, propositions, and doctrines in a confession, but also with all the metaphysical and epistemological viewpoints of the confession’s authors or signatories. Renihan appears to confirm this when he employs the same illustration in a recent podcast on confessional subscription and remarks, “[The historical subscription view] would require us to be committed to the whole philosophical background of any Confession of Faith.”11
Full (or Strict) Subscription
Advocates of this kind of subscription include Reformed and Presbyterian scholars R. Scott Clark,12 Morton Smith,13 and George Knight III,14 as well as the Reformed Baptist scholar James Renihan and the Baptist association he serves.15
Like absolute subscription, full subscription requires the person to subscribe to the entire creed or confession because (quia) it is biblical. Unlike absolute subscription, however, full subscription allows the subscriber to take exception to words or phrases, but not to any doctrines. Smith, for example, identifies “full subscription” with quia-subscription16 and argues,
In professing the Confession and Catechisms of this Church [Presbyterian Church in America] as his confession, [the ordinand, minister, or teacher] is subscribing to all of the doctrines in the Confession and Catechisms; they are all part of the system of doctrine.17
More specifically, for Smith and Knight, “The Confession and Catechisms assert nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word of God.”18 This perspective seems consistent with Clark’s view of confessional subscription, which requires the ordinand and the church to view the teaching of the Confession as equivalent to that of Scripture. Writes Clark,
It is not that the authority of the confessions is ‘very nearly tantamount to that of Scripture,’ but it is tantamount to that of Scripture, assuming that a given confession is biblical and intended to be subscribed because (quia) it is biblical.19
Strict subscription acknowledges that not all doctrines in the Confession are of equal importance, just as all teachings in Scripture are not of equal importance.20 Moreover, while strict subscription requires agreement with every doctrine, it doesn’t require full agreement with every word or phrase in the confession. At least this is true of the version advocated by Smith and Knight. Smith clarifies,
Full subscription does not require the adoption of every word of the Confession and Catechisms, but positively believes that we are adopting every doctrine or teaching of the Confession and Catechisms.21
This raises certain questions. To begin with, what constitutes a “doctrine” or “teaching”? As noted above, Morton Smith agreed to the following definition or description in his debate with William Barker:
Every declaratory statement states something true or false. And every declaratory statement in the Standards is either one doctrine or several doctrines.22
But since the meaning of a “declaratory statement” is determined by the words and phrases that constitute the statement, how can one disagree with a word or a phrase without in some sense modifying the doctrine or teaching?
When pressed for examples, Smith offered two examples where one might take issue with phrases that employ archaic language. For instance, the Westminster Confession uses the term “vulgar language” to mean the vernacular (1.8).23 Smith also alluded to the Larger Catechism’s prohibition of “keeping of stews” (WLC Q139).24 In these cases, we may suppose that Dr. Smith would recommend we substitute these terms with synonymous expressions that would be intelligible to a modern audience.
Smith offers two more examples that seem to allow for actual differences at a semantic level. Smith acknowledged that there was difference of opinion as to whether the term “testament” is the best term to portray the biblical concept of covenant (cf. WCF 7.4). Apparently, one could disagree with the term “testament” as an appropriate gloss for the underlying Hebrew and Greek terms yet still affirm the doctrine that term conveys. Smith also alluded to the practice of Dutch churches requiring full subscription to the Three Forms of Unity but allowing the subscriber to question whether Paul really wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews, as the Belgic Confession suggests when it refers to the “fourteen Epistles of the Apostle Paul,” which includes “one to the Hebrews.” Preferring the ordinal “thirteen” instead of “fourteen” would not constitute, in Smith’s view, a disagreement with a doctrine but simply with the wording of a doctrine.25
What about scruples or exceptions? For R. Scott Clark, the answer appears quite simple: “If a confession is not biblical, it should be revised so that it is biblical, or it should be discarded in favor of a confession that is biblical.”26 Apparently, Clark doesn’t believe a subscriber should be allowed to have scruples or take exceptions to his church’s confession. In his words,
Why should a church adopt a confession that some or even most of the church believe to be at least partially unbiblical? Why should a church not draft and adopt a confession she believes to be wholly biblical? … Wherever there are exceptions, then it is no longer clear which document is being subscribed. Every time an exception is taken, the document being subscribed functionally changes at least for that subscriber and arguably … for the body permitting the exception.27
“One could hold,” writes Smith, “that no exceptions to doctrines taught in the Confession and Catechisms should be allowed.” He continues, “This is the position that the full subscriptionist prefers.”28 On the other hand, Smith suggests, “One could hold that exceptions may be allowed so long as those who take the exceptions are not permitted to teach views contrary to the Standards.”29 In his debate with William Barker, Smith made clear that in allowing an exception the presbytery was in effect labeling the exception as “error” but deeming that the error did not strike at the heart of the gospel.30
System subscription is the product of early American Presbyterianism. Advocates of this view include “Old School Presbyterians” Samuel Miller,31 Charles Hodge,32 B. B. Warfield,33 J. Gresham Machen,34 and John Murray.35 More recent proponents include William Barker,36 James Urish,37 David Calhoun,38 and John Muether.39 System subscription is the official position of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church of America.
Ironically, system subscription is probably the most discussed and yet the most often misunderstood and mischaracterized type of confessional subscription. For example, Morton Smith refers to system subscription as “loose subscription” and alleges it “maintains that we subscribe to a system of doctrine, which is not specifically defined, but which is contained in the Confession and Catechisms of the Church.” This is not exactly correct. As we’ll note below, system subscription requires the adoption of the confessional standards as a whole. But it allows for non-essential doctrinal exceptions. In a worse turn, James Renihan confuses system subscription with a much broader “substance” subscription that only requires an affirmation of “the essential truths of the gospel.”40
Part of the difficulty is the fact that articulations and defenses of this view are often based on (1) interpretations of the Adopting Act of 1729 and (2) the meaning of the ministerial vow taken by the candidate in which he promises to adopt the confessional standards “as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scripture.”41
The Adopting Act of 1729 required ministers of the Presbyterian Church to subscribe to the Westminster Standards as a whole.42 But the “Preliminary Act,” which was drafted on the same day and served as a kind of preface to the Adopting Act, makes repeated reference to the “essential and necessary articles” of the Standards as the basis on which a candidate’s subscription is to be assessed.43 Hence, most scholars and historians believe the Adopting Act requires ministers and candidates to adopt the Standards as a whole, but it also allows for exceptions to articles in the Standards that the Presbyteries deem non-essential or unnecessary.44
This seems to be consistent with the interpretation of the Act given by Charles Hodge. On the one hand, Hodge can assert,
There can be no doubt, therefore, that the adopting act, as understood and intended by its authors, bound every new member to receive the Confession of Faith and Catechisms, in all their parts, except certain specified clauses in chapters twentieth and twenty-third.45
Thus, in Hodge’s view, the Adopting Act called for subscription to the Confession as a whole excluding those articles the Synod officially excepted.46 Therefore, “system of doctrine” for Hodge was not simply “the general substance” of the doctrines of the Confession but those doctrines of the Confession in their “integrity.”47 Hence, he remarks,
Ever since the solemn enactment under consideration, every new member or candidate for ministry has been required to give his assent to this confession, as containing the system of doctrines taught in the Word of God. He assents not merely to absolutely essential and necessary articles of the gospel, but to the whole concatenated [i.e., integrated] statement of doctrines contained in the Confession.48
On the other hand, Hodge can refer to the Adopting Act as “a compromise,” with the common ground being “the essential and necessary articles of that Confession.”49 Thus, Hodge seems to concede that there might be non-essential elements in the Confession that do not impinge on the integrity of its teaching as a whole. This reading of Hodge is confirmed later when he writes,
We do not expect that our ministers should adopt every proposition contained in our standards. This they are not required to do. But they are required to adopt the system; and that system consists of certain doctrines, no one of which can be omitted without destroying its identity.50
Elsewhere Hodge laments the extremes of overly lax and overly strict views of subscription:
On the one hand, there are some, who seem inclined to give the phrase in question [system of doctrine], such latitude as that any one, who holds the great fundamental doctrines of the Gospel, as they are recognized by all evangelical denominations, might adopt it [the Confession]; while on the other, some are disposed to interpret it so strictly as to make it not only involve the adoption of all doctrines contained in the Confession, but to preclude all diversity in the manner of conceiving and explaining them.51
So system subscription like full subscription rejects the “all-or-nothing” approach of absolute subscription. Both take the entire confessional standard as their starting point.52 Moreover, both approaches allow for exceptions deemed by the church non-essential to the system of doctrine contained in the Confession. The difference, it would appear, is that full subscription limits exceptions to mere words and phrases, whereas system subscription allows the subscriber to take exception to non-essential propositions or doctrines.53 Such include any doctrinal propositions in the Confession that do not undermine the Augustinian, Protestant, Reformed, and Calvinistic system of doctrine as opposed to the Pelagian, Semi-Pelagian, Socinian, and Arminian systems.54 This distinction is further supported by well-documented examples of real doctrinal exceptions either allowed for or taken by Old School Presbyterians like Hodge, Thornwell, Warfield, Machen, and Murray.55
Nevertheless, as suggested above, even the distinction between wording and doctrines is not always clear. For instance, both Hodge (system) and Renihan (full) allow that one might take exception to the Confession’s identification of the Pope of Rome as “that Antichrist” (WCF 25.4; 2LCF 26.4). For Hodge, this is an exception to a propositional declaration or doctrine.56 But Renihan portrays this as merely an exception to the wording of the Confession. “Reluctance to identify the pope with the man of sin,” he avers, “is vastly different from signing Evangelical and Catholics Together.”57 We would agree. But we would point out (pace Renihan) that this is not simply a case of quibbling over words but rather a disagreement over a non-essential doctrine in the Confession.58
In summary, system subscription seeks to steer a middle course (via media) between absolute or full subscription, on the one hand, and the versions of “substance subscription” we’ll highlight below. David Calhoun aptly captures this Old School Presbyterian view when he writes,
In the view of the Princetonians, there were three positions on subscription: one was too strict, one was too lax, and one (like the porridge of the smallest bear in the story of Goldilocks) was ‘just right.’ The Princeton men held consistently to their middle position and, when necessary, criticized those who were, in their view, too strict or too lax.59
This leads us to consider two remaining types of confessional subscription that are, in this writer’s opinion, too lax.
Substance (of the Evangelical Faith) Subscription
“Substance subscription” is the nomenclature assigned to those approaches of confessional subscription that require adherence to a set of core doctrines within the confession. So long as the minister or candidate affirms belief in and commitment to the core doctrines of the confession, whatever they may be, his subscription is deemed sufficient. Moreover, substance subscription normally doesn’t require the subscriber to identify his exceptions to the confession.
As noted above, system subscription is sometimes confused with substance subscription because it allows for a distinction between doctrines that are essential and necessary to the system of doctrine contained in the Confession and doctrines non-essential to that system. In the case of the Westminster Standards, that would be Reformed theology. However, system subscription takes the whole confession as its starting point and requires the subscriber to identify any propositions in that standard to which he may take exception. So the two are not equal.
The early American Presbyterian Jonathan Dickinson may be categorized as an advocate of a kind of “substance subscription” that requires affirmation of and adherence to the essential doctrines of the evangelical faith within a confession. In Dickinson’s mind,
We may not so much as shut out of Communion, any such Dissenters, as we can charitably hope Christ won’t shut out of Heaven: But should open the Doors of the Church as wide as Christ opens the Gates of Heaven; and receive one another, as Christ also received us, to the Glory of God.60
Charles Hodge confirms that Dickinson intended this subscriptional latitude to apply to ministers as well as to laypeople when he discusses Dickinson’s involvement in the Adopting Act of 1729. “It is very evident,” says Hodge,
that the Adopting Act was a compromise. Both parties were very desirous to avoid a schism…. Mr. Dickinson had avowed his wish to establish the ‘essential and necessary doctrines of Christianity’ as the condition of ministerial communion. Mr. Thomson wished the explicit adoption of the Westminster Confession, to be that condition. The common ground on which they met was the essential and necessary articles of that Confession.61
Obviously, Dickinson didn’t get his way and, instead, acquiesced to the system subscription position. Nevertheless, his personal preference serves as a paradigm for an evangelical version of substance subscription.
James Renihan provides an example of this form of subscription among early American Baptists. In 1787 John Leland facilitated a merger between the Regular Baptists and Separate Baptists of Virginia. With respect to confessional subscription, the “Plan of Union” concludes:
After a long debate about the utility of adopting a Confession of faith, agreed to receive the Regular Baptists [i.e., the Philadelphia Confession]. But to prevent its usurping a tyrannical power over the consciences of any, we do not mean that every person is to be bound to the strict observance of everything therein contained: yet that it holds forth the essential truths of the gospel, and that the doctrine of salvation by Christ, and free unmerited grace alone, ought to be believed by every Christian, and maintained by every minister of the gospel.62
Renihan believes this loosening of confessional subscription was probably an overreaction of the Baptists to the political attempt of the Anglican state church in Virginia to impose its creed on ministers. The resultant watering down of confessional commitment, notes Renihan, “contributed to decline in Baptist theology.”63
Substance (of the Christian Religion) Subscription
As is often the case, the well-meant intentions of some (i.e., broad-minded evangelicals) can open the door to the bad intentions of others (i.e., theological liberals). The step of subscribing to a confession as containing the substance of the evangelical faith may lead to the further step of reducing the “essentials” to broader fundamentals or tenants of the Christian religion.64 This very loose form of substance subscription is where many of the mainline denominations landed in the twentieth-century.
A case in point was the action of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (PCUSA) in 1910. In response to complaints about ministers questioning fundamental doctrines, such as the virgin birth of Christ, the Assembly produced a doctrinal statement that identifies five articles it deems essential and necessary to the Christian faith. The articles themselves are orthodox and explicitly oppose modernist views.65 But this seeming victory for conservative evangelicals in the PCUSA was only temporary. In 1924 the Auburn Affirmation was published and signed by 150 pastors and elders within the church. In essence it called for greater liberty of conscience and doctrinal latitude. Three years later the General Assembly of 1927 gave the right to each Presbytery to decide what it considered “essential and necessary.” Eventually, liberalism and neo-orthodoxy became the dominant doctrinal currents in the PCUSA, resulting in a rather general and under-defined commitment to “lead a life in obedience to Scripture and conformity to the historical standards of the church.”66
This concludes our overview of the terms and types of confessional subscription. In the next post in this series, we’ll offer a critical assessment of each of the types of subscription we’ve surveyed above and suggest some recommendations for developing a balanced and, we believe, biblical view of confessional subscription.67
- For an exposition of the concept of animus imponentis as applied to confessional subscription, see Alan Strange’s lecture “Animus Imponentis: Hits and Myths,” which was delivered at the 2009 Animus Imponentis Conference of the Presbytery of Northern California and Nevada. The audio file, transcript, and lecture notes can be accessed here: http://www.pncnopc.org/audio/audio-presbytery/2009-animus-imponentis-conference/ (accessed October 23, 2014).
- See The Creeds of Christendom, sixth edition, ed. Philip Schaff and David S. Schaff (1931; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 3:298.
- J. Ligon Duncan, III, “Owning the Confession: Subscription in the Scottish Presbyterian Tradition,” The Practice of Confessional Subscription [hereafter, PCS], ed. David W. Hall (Oak Ridge, TN: Covenant Foundation, 1997), 79. See also Peter Lillbeck who notes that this is “the first instance of any Reformed Church taking an exception to a subscribed confession. “Confessional Subscription Among Sixteenth Century Reformers,” PCS, 42.
- A PDF of the position paper is available online here: http://s3.amazonaws.com/
churchplantmedia-cms/arbca_carlisle_pa/regulative-principle.pdf (accessed October 22, 2014).
- Many of the Puritans endorsed exclusive psalmody and viewed “uninspired” hymns as inappropriate for public worship. Moreover, nearly all the Puritans and Particular Baptists would have opposed the use of musical instruments in worship. Some Particular Baptists even went so far as to exclude congregational singing from worship. Joel Beeke’s “Psalm Singing in Calvin and the Puritans” attempts to demonstrate that exclusive psalmody was the prevalent view among the Puritans: http://www.reformedfellowship.net/articles/beeke-psalm-sing-sept-oct10v60-n5.htm (accessed October 22, 2014). R. Scott Clark makes a similar case pointing to the Westminster Assembly’s “Directory for Public Worship,” which asserts, “It is the duty of Christians to praise God publicly, by singing of psalms together in the congregation, and also privately in the family.” Recovering the Reformed Confession: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2008), 249-51. For a survey on the Puritans’ view of musical instruments in public worship, see John Price, Old Light on New Worship: Musical Instruments and the Worship of God, a Theological, Historical, and Psychological Study (Avinger, TX: Simpson Publishing, 2005). James Renihan documents the debate among Particular Baptists over the lawfulness of congregational singing in his dissertation “The Practical Ecclesiology of the English Particular Baptists, 1675-1705” (PhD Diss.; Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, 1997), 298-310.
- This definition was actually proposed by someone in the audience seeking clarification of Smith’s position. It occurs towards the end of the debate about 29 minutes into part two: “Confessional Subscription Debate: Smith/Barker”, Part 2 (accessed Nov 16, 2011).
- Some, like R. Scott Clark, believe that the same level of commitment to the church’s confessional standards should be expected of the clergy and the laity. “It is not obvious,” Clark observes, “that establishing two levels of subscription, one for laity and another for ordained officers, is either biblical or consistent with the Reformation…. If the Reformed confession defines what it is to be Reformed, then establishing two distinct relations to the same constitutional document would seem to be a recipe for confusion and effectively two churches within one.” Recovering the Reformed Confession, 179. In my opinion, Clark’s position is neither biblical nor confessional for the following reasons: (1) In the New Testament, baptism and church membership usually precede a thorough grounding in Christian doctrine (Matt 28:19-20; Acts 2:41-42; Eph 4:11-14). Thus, while a fuller affirmation of the church’s confession may be the goal for membership, it shouldn’t be a prerequisite for membership. This places the cart before the horse. (2) This approach is consistent with the 1689 Baptist Confession. According 26:2 (“Of the church”), “All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are any may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted.” The prerequisite for church membership is, simply, a credible profession of faith that is not contradicted by serious doctrinal error or ungodly behavior. Mastery of the Confession as a requirement for membership is conspicuously absent. (3) Confessions and creeds are designed to protect the church from false teachers, not from weak or immature brethren. And (4) a creed or confession is an extension of human, specifically, ecclesiastical authority. God’s requirement that we submit to such authority does not necessitate that we fully agree with the authority, especially on non-essentials. See also Andrew Fuller, Complete Works, 3 vols. (1832; reprint, Harrisonburg: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), 450.
- Summarizing confessional subscription of the 16th century, Peter Lillbeck remarks, “First, all confessional churches insisted that Holy Scripture was over confession. Second, all confessional churches believed that the Scriptures themselves compelled them to confess their faith in the pure truths of Holy Scripture. Third, without obvious exception, the intent of subscription to the confession was to be complete, because the confession was deemed to be the very teaching of Scripture. Thus a quia-subscription rather than a quatenus-subscription was expected…. Fourth, nevertheless, such a high view of subscription was not possible in a universal sense…. Fifth, the sixteenth century solution to this problem of reaching confessional agreement by subscription in the face of disagreements included writing a more precise confession or catechism, and then demanding a quia-subscription that was enforced by ecclesiastical discipline. But even those who had subscribed to the same Confessional Consensus, found that they could not always perfectly agree as brothers as in the case of Calvin’s confession on predestination in relationship with the Zurichers, or the Scots disagreement with the Swiss over holy days…. Although the sixteenth century Reformers did not conclude their struggles over confessional subscription in terms of the American Presbyterian solution, they created the historical context and need for the practical and biblical wisdom of the Presbyterian Church of America’s second ordination vow and its theological brother found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, 20:2:… Precisely because the Scriptures are the norma normans, the confession must be the norma normata. Because only fallen people have composed confessions, we may not dare give more than a quatenus-subscription.” “Confessional Subscription Among the Sixteenth Century Reformers,” 59-62.
- Cited by Robert Godfrey in “Subscription in the Dutch Reformed Tradition,” PCS, 68-69.
- Renihan goes on to remark, “I don’t know that that’s the best thing for us [ARBCA] to do in terms of subscription. So my category of historical subscription is not to say we can treat it as we want to and ignore the context. No, I think the context is absolutely necessary in terms of the doctrines, but not necessarily in terms of the philosophical background.” See Podcast #22 (Sept 3, 2013): Dr. Renihan-Confessionalism: http://confessingbaptist.com/podcast022/ (accessed October 21, 2014). Renihan’s definition and assessment of “historical subscription occurs been 44:48 and 47:05 in the audio.
- See Recovering the Reformed Confession, 177-91.
- See Morton H. Smith, “The Case for Full Subscription,” in The Practice of Subscription, ed. David W. Hall (Oak Ridge, TN: The Covenant Foundation, 1997), 185-205.
- See George W. Knight III, “Subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms,” in The Practice of Subscription, 119-148.
- See Appendix #1 in ARBCA’s Constitution (revised March 5, 2004), which is available online here: http://www.arbca.com/arbca-constitution (accessed October 21, 2014). This is a condensed summary of a paper Renihan presented to the 1998 General Assembly entitled “Confessional Subscription.” Renihan’s paper has been republished in Tom Chantry and David Dykstra, Holding Communion Together: The Reformed Baptists-The First Fifty Years (Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Books, 2014), 275-94.
- Holding Fast to the Faith: A Brief History of Subscription to Creeds and Confessions with Particular Reference to Presbyterian Churches (Self-Published, 2003), 15.
- “The Case for Full Subscription,” 185.
- Emphasis added; This language, which Smith cites approvingly, is taken from a study paper submitted to the 10th General Assembly of the PCA. The paper is available online here (accessed Nov 16, 2011). In the audio debate on subscription between William Barker and Morton Smith, Barker cites this phrase as representative of Smith’s position. The audio debate can be accessed here: “Confessional Subscription Debate: Smith/Barker”, Part 1: https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=12505102413 (accessed Nov 16, 2011.) The summary of the debate, which is available on the Orthodox Presbyterian Church website (click here), also employs this clause to describe Smith’s position. Knight also refers to the study paper and affirms the “doctrines of the Confession are to be regarded as ‘the very doctrines of the Word.’“ “Subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms,” 129.
- Emphasis his; Recovering the Reformed Confession, 178.
- “The Case for Full Subscription,” 185.
- Ibid., 186.
- This definition was actually proposed by someone in the audience seeking clarification of Smith’s position. It occurs towards the end of the debate about 29 minutes into part two: “Confessional Subscription Debate: Smith/Barker”, Part 2: https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=12505102455 (accessed Nov 16, 2011).
- Today, “vulgar language” normally denotes crude, coarse, or obscene language.
- The reference to “stews” in the Larger Catechism is slang. At one time “stews” referred to public bathhouses. Since these bathhouses were often associated with prostitution or illicit sex, the Catechism is apparently using the term by way of association.
- I gleaned these examples from the audio debate between Barker and Smith.
- Recovering the Reformed Confession, 178.
- Ibid., 180. These remarks would seem to place Clark in the category of absolute or historical subscription. However, elsewhere Clark argues that we shouldn’t be expected to take phrases like the WCF’s depiction of God’s work of creation “in the space of six days” as they may have been originally understood by some of the Assembly divines. See Recovering the Reformed Confession, 47-61.
- Holding Fast to the Faith, 60.
- This was stated at about 49 minutes into the debate.
- See his The Utility and Importance of Creeds and Confessions (1824; reprint, Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage Publications, 1989), 61-62, 100-04.
- Hodge expresses his views in a number of writings including The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, 2 vols. (1851; reprint, Wrightstown, NJ: American Presbyterian Press, 1984), 1:145-66, 170-72, 185-86, the sections of which are included in PCS, 105-118; Discussions of Church Polity (New York: Scribner’s, 1878); “Remarks on Dr. Cox’s Communication,” Biblical Repertory and Theological Review 3:4 (Oct 1831): 520-25; “Adoption of the Confession of Faith,” Princeton Review (Oct 1858): 672-92; “Presbyterian Reunion,” Princeton Review (Jan 1866): 53-83; “The General Assembly,” Princeton Review (July 1867): 440-522.
- See his “Presbyterian Churches and the Westminster Confession,” Presbyterian Review 10:40 (Oct 1889): 646-57.
- For Machen’s thoughts on creeds and subscription, see What is Christianity? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), 229-33; Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1981), 163-64; “The Creeds and Doctrinal Advance,” Scripture and Confession, ed. John H. Skilton (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973), 149-57.
- “Creed Subscription in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.,” PCS, 247-62; “The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith,” Scripture and Confession, 125-48.
- “System Subscription,” Westminster Theological Journal 63 (2001): 1-14. See also his “The Samuel Hemphill Heresy Case (1735) and the Historic Method of Subscribing to the Westminster Standards,” PCS, 149-69.
- “A Peaceable Plea About Subscription: Toward Avoiding Future Divisions,” PCS, 207-36.
- “‘Honest Subscription’: Old Princeton Seminary and Subscription to the Westminster Standards,” PCS, 237-45.
- “Confidence in Our Brethren: Creedal Subscription in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church,” PCS, 301-10.
- “Confessional Subscription,” in Holding Communion Together, 279-81. Renihan’s views have developed, and he recently distinguished between “substance” and “system” subscription in a podcast (see note 11 above). However, his case for full subscription is significantly weakened in that it depends in part on his positioning it as a reasonable middle position between the extremes of absolute subscription and system or loose subscription.
- This is the wording from the second vow for officers of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and the Presbyterian Church of America. The vow required of the professors of old Princeton is similar: “In the presence of God and of the Directors of this Seminary, I do solemnly and ex animo adopt, receive, and subscribe the Confession of Faith, and the Catechisms of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, as the confession of my faith; or as a summary and just exhibition of that system of doctrine and religious belief which is contained in the Holy Scripture, and therein revealed by God to man for his salvation;…” Cited by Calhoun, “‘Honest Subscription’: Old Princeton Seminary and Subscription to the Westminster Standards,” 237.
- “All the ministers of this Synod now present … after proposing all of the scruples that any of them had to make against any articles and expressions in the Confession of Faith, and Larger and Shorter Catechisms of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, have unanimously agreed in the solution of those scruples, and in declaring the said Confession and Catechisms to be the confession of their faith, excepting only some clauses in the twentieth and twenty-third chapters, concerning which clauses the Synod do unanimously declare, that they do not receive those articles in any such sense as to suppose the civil magistrate hath a controlling power over Synods with respect to the exercise of their ministerial authority; or power to persecute any for their religion, or in any sense contrary to the Protestant succession to the throne of Great Britain.” Cited in Barker, “System Subscription,” 4.
- For example, “[A]ll the Presbyteries … shall always take care not to admit any candidate of the ministry … but what declares his agreement in opinion with all the essential and necessary articles of said Confession ….”; “[I]n case any minister … or candidate for the ministry, shall have any scruple with respect to any article or articles of said Confession or Catechisms, he shall at the time of his making said declaration declare his sentiments to the Presbytery or Synod, who shall, notwithstanding, admit him to the exercise of the ministry …, if the Synod or Presbytery shall judge his scruple or mistake to be only about articles not essential and necessary in doctrine, worship, or government”; “And the Synod do solemnly agree, that none of us will traduce or use any opprobrious terms of those that differ from us in these extra-essential and not necessary points of doctrine….” Cited in Barker, “System Subscription,” 3-4.
- See Luder G. Whitlock, “The Context of the Adopting Act,” PCS, 98-100; Barker, “The Samuel Hemphill Heresy Case (1735) and the Historic Method of Subscribing to the Westminster Standards,” 160-64; “System Subscription,” 3-6; Lillbeck, “Confessional Subscription Among the Sixteenth Century Reformers,” 36; James Urish, “A Peaceable Plea About Subscription,” 208-14; Calhoun, “‘Honest Subscription’: Old Princeton Seminary and Subscription to the Westminster Standards,” 243-44. For dissenting opinions, see Morton Smith, “The Case for Full Subscription,” PCS, 191-94, and George W. Knight III, “Subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms,” PCS, 120-26.
- Emphasis added; “The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America,” PCS, 111.
- Namely, those touching on the civil magistrate’s role in religion. Note here another example of animus imponentis. The ecclesiastical body using the Confession reserves the right to define how it will be understood and used.
- “Adoption of the Confession of Faith,” Princeton Review (1858): 672, 678, cited in Calhoun, 241.
- Hodge, Constitutional History, 1:183, as cited in Barker, “System Subscription,” 9.
- “The Constitutional History of the Presbyterian Church,” 109.
- “The General Assembly,” Princeton Review (1867): 509, cited in Calhoun, 243. Hodge elaborates on what he considers to be essential to the Confession’s system of doctrine: “In professing to adopt the Confession of Faith as containing the system of doctrines taught in the sacred Scriptures, a man professes to believe the whole series of doctrines constituting that system, in opposition to every other. That is, he professes to believe the whole series of doctrines which go to make up the Calvinistic system in opposition to the Socinian, Pelagian, Semi-Pelagian, Arminian, or any opposite and inconsistent view of Christianity.” “Remarks on Dr. Cox’s Communication,” 522, cited in Barker, “System Subscription,” 8.
- “Remarks on Dr. Cox’s Communication,” Biblical Repertory and Theological Review (1831): 520, cited by Calhoun, 239. For those who would require the adoption of every doctrinal proposition of the Confession, Hodge had strong words: “There doubtless have been, and there still may be, men who would do all this, and in the mingled spirit of the Pharisee and Dominican, rejoice in the desolation they had wrought, and shout, ‘The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are we.’ God forbid that such spirit should ever gain the ascendancy in our church. Let us keep our hands off of God’s ark, and not assume to be more zealous for his truth, or more solicitous for the purity of his church, than he is himself.” “Adoption of the Confession of Faith,” Princeton Review (1858): 685, cited in Calhoun, 241-42.
- John Fesko, a church historian and theologian of the OPC, has stressed this point in a recent lecture entitled “System Subscription,” which he delivered at the 2009 Animus Imponentis Conference. The audio file, transcription, and lecture notes are available for download here: http://www.pncnopc.org/audio/audio-presbytery/2009-animus-imponentis-conference/(accessed November 23, 2014).
- This approach is not only seen in Hodge but also in his successors. For example, B. B. Warfield remarks, “The most we can expect and the most we have the right to ask is, that each one may be able to recognize [the Confession] as an expression of the system of truth which he believes.” He continues, “To go beyond this and seek to make each of a large body of signers accept the Confession in all its propositions as the profession of his personal belief, cannot fail to result in serious evils—not least among which are the twin evils that, on the one hand, too strict a subscription overreaches itself and becomes little better than no subscription; and, on the other hand, that it begets a spirit of petty, carping criticism which raises objections to forms of a statement that in other circumstances would not appear objectionable.” From his “Presbyterian Churches and the Westminster Confession,” as cited by George W. Knight III in “Subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms,” 135. Similarly, John Murray writes, “It seems to the present writer that to demand acceptance of every proposition in so extensive a series of documents would be incompatible with the avowal made in answer to the first question in the formula of subscription and comes dangerously close to the error of placing human documents on par with Holy Scripture.” “Creed Subscription in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.” in The Subscription Debate (Greenville, SC: Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, n.d.), 79.
- See Charles Hodge, Church Polity, 336-37, cited in John Fesko, “The Legacy of Old School Confession Subscription in the OPC,” The Journal of the Evangelical Society 46:4 (Dec 2003): 678, 679; Robert Lewis Dabney, “The Doctrinal Content of the Confession,” PCS, 173; A. A. Hodge, Life of Charles Hodge, 407-08, referenced in Calhoun, 245; Barker, “System Subscription,” 8-10; Urich, “A Peaceable Plea About Subscription,” 217-18.
- See, for example, Barker, “System Subscription,” 11-12; Fesko, “The Legacy of Old School Confession Subscription in the OPC,” 679-96.
- “There are many propositions contained in the Westminster Confession which do not belong to the integrity of the Augustinian, or Reformed System. A man may be a true Augustinian or Calvinist, and not believe that the Pope of Rome is the Antichrist predicted by St. Paul; or that the 18th chapter of Leviticus is still binding.” Church Polity, 336, cited in Fesko, “The Legacy of Old School Confession Subscription in the OPC,” 679.
- “Confessional Subscription,” in Holding Communion Together, 279.
- This conclusion is supported by the fact that the article in question has been removed in the official versions of the WCF used by the OPC and PCA.
- “‘Honest Subscription’: Old Princeton Seminary and Subscription to the Westminster Standards,” 237.
- Emphasis his; In Maurice Armstrong, Lefferts Loetscher, and Charles Anderson, eds. The Presbyterian Enterprise (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Historical Society, 1956), 26-27, cited in Urish, 209.
- Constitutional History, 1:152, cited in Urish, 210.
- From A. D. Gillette, ed. Minutes of the Philadelphia Baptist Association, from A.D. 1707 to A.D. 1807 (Atlas, MI: Baptist Book Trust, n.d. facsimile reprint), 233, as cited in Renihan, “Confessional Subscription,” 280.
- “Confessional Subscription,” 280.
- A case in point was the action of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. in 1910 in which it produced a doctrinal statement that identified five articles it deemed essential and necessary to the Christian faith. The articles themselves, which affirm evangelical commitments as opposed to modernist views, were orthodox. However, this act had the result of opening the door for further doctrinal reduction in 1927 when the General Assembly gave the right to each Presbytery to decide what it considered “essential and necessary.”
- The five articles are available online here: http://www.pcahistory.org/documents/deliverance.html (accessed October 23, 2014).
- These now include the following: Nicene Creed, Apostles’ Creed, The Scots Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Second Helvetic Confession, The Westminster Confession, The Shorter Catechism, The Larger Catechism, The Theological Declaration of Barmen, The Confession of 1967, and A Brief Statement of Faith – Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), all of which make up the denomination’s Book of Confessions: https://www.pcusa.org/media/uploads/oga/pdf/boc.pdf (accessed October 23, 2014).
- Of course, this assumes that writing and using creeds and confessions are legitimate for churches and religious institutions. For my defense of the validity and value of confessions, see the previous post: https://reformedbaptistblog.com/2018/01/09/the-validity-value-of-confessions/ (accessed January 18, 2018).
4 thoughts on “Confessional Subscription: Its Terms and Types”
Is there a formalized method of evaluation to determine what doctrines are considered non-essential, or not a part of the system of the confession, and which ones are. In other words, how far is too far, and how do we know? Also, would the adverb form of system subscription be “systematically,” or “systemically?” To me, I don’t see anything wrong with saying I agree with the substance of the confession, but take minor nuances with scrupulous doctrines contained therein, but I can see how saying system instead may connote a more extensive alignment. In my mind, if you take exception to any doctrine in the confession you are asserting that you are no longer fully, wholly, or completely subscribed to it, but are substantially subscribed to it. But when you tell people that, they want to know how substantially you are aligned with it. I appreciate the categories you’ve drawn, and I for one, will now be explaining my level of substantial subscription as pertaining to alignment with the “system” of teaching taught in the 1689, allowing for doctrinal variations non-essential to that system. But as I said at the beginning, the next question people will want to ask is, “What do you mean by system, and what classifies a doctrine as non-essential to it?” Will you be discussing this in your upcoming blog?
Good question. The formal method of evaluation must be determined by the ecclesiastical body/entity using the confession. It could be the eldership of a church or the members of an association of churches. In either case, they have to deliberate whether an exception or scruple is of such a nature so as to undermine the system of theology espoused by their confession. In that case of the 2LCF, that would be “Reformed” and “Baptist.”
Of course, this does entail a degree of subjectivity. But that subjectivity will also entail a careful and prayerful reconsideration of the teaching of Scripture and reflection on whether the person’s exception can be tolerated without disrupting the unity and health of the church or churches. I don’t see this as a bad thing but as a good thing.
For more about this, read my other article here: https://reformedbaptistblog.com/2016/10/03/confessional-subscription-strict-vs-substantial/
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