Confessional Subscription: Its Terms and Types

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. Continue reading “Confessional Subscription: Its Terms and Types”

The Validity & Value of Confessions

The tensions were high. In June of 1922, the Northern Baptist Convention convened under the theme, “Agreed to Differ, but Resolved to Love.” One might dispute whether the resolution was successfully carried out. But no one will debate that they “agreed to differ.” The tensions were high. Continue reading “The Validity & Value of Confessions”

The Baptist Confession on Lawful Oaths and Vows

In the seventeenth century, certain sects of Christendom, such as the Anabaptists and, later, the Quakers, denied the legitimacy of taking oaths or making vows. The teaching of this chapter was designed to clarify the meaning and confirm the lawfulness of oaths and vows when properly used. The Baptist Confession (2LCF) retains the substance of the Westminster Confession (WCF), but it abbreviates the form.1

Concerning Lawful Oaths (23.1-4)

The first four paragraphs address nature, propriety, solemnity and sincerity of lawful oaths.


The nature of a lawful oath (23.1)

Original Text

A lawful oath is a part of religious worship, wherein the person swearing in truth, righteousness, and judgement, solemnly calleth God to witness what he sweareth,[1] and to judge him according to the truth or falseness thereof.[2]

Modern Version

A lawful oath is an element of religious worship in which a person swearing in truth, righteousness, and judgment solemnly calls God to witness what is sworn and to judge the one swearing according to the truth or falsity of it.

[1] Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 10:20; Jeremiah 4:2   [2] 2 Chronicles 6:22, 23

The first paragraph describes the nature of an oath. An oath is a solemn promise made to another party in which God is called upon to act as a witness and judge.

There are two kinds of oaths: (1) an assertory oath is used to confirm the truthfulness and reliability of one’s testimony. This type of oath is often used in the courtroom setting; (2) a promissory oath is used to confirm one’s intent to fulfill an obligation or promise. Those assuming some public office or a contractual obligation, like marriage, often use this type of oath. Traditionally, oaths have been viewed as religious in nature2 since God is evoked as a witness.3 However, in modern times oaths have begun to lose their religious character with the increase of secularism.

The Bible contains numerous examples of oaths. Sometimes civil or religious authorities would require an individual or community to confirm a plea of innocence with an oath when suspected or accused of a crime (Exodus 22:10, 11; Leviticus 5:1; 6:3; Numbers 5:11-28; Matthew 26:63, 64). Oaths were also employed to confirm one’s fidelity to his covenantal commitments and responsibilities (1 Kings 2:43; Ecclesiastes 8:2; Hebrews 6:16, 17).

Oaths often included such verbal formulas as “I swear by God” (1 Samuel 30:15; Nehemiah 13:25), “God is witness between you and me” (Genesis 31:50; 1 Samuel 12:5; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Philippians 1:8), “As the Lord lives” (1 Samuel 14:39; 19:6; 20:3; 2 Samuel 15:21), or “May the Lord do so to me if I do not” (Ruth 1:17; 1 Samuel 3:17; 14:44; 2 Samuel 3:35; 1 Kings 2:23).

Oaths were also often accompanied by physical gestures, such as raising one’s right hand heavenward (Deuteronomy 32:40; Psalm 106:26; Isaiah 62:8; Daniel 12:7; Revelation 10:5, 6) or, less commonly, placing one’s hand under another’s thigh (Genesis 24:2; 47:29).4 In modern times, the adjured raises his right hand or places it upon a Bible and swears to “tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help [him] God.”

The propriety of a lawful oath (23.2)

Original Text

The name of God only is that by which men ought to swear; and therein it is to be used, with all holy fear and reverence;   therefore to swear vainly or rashly by that glorious and dreadful name, or to swear at all by any other thing, is sinful, and to be abhorred;[3] yet as in matter of weight and moment, for confirmation of truth, and ending all strife, an oath is warranted by the word of God;[4] so a lawful oath being imposed by lawful authority in such matters, ought to be taken.[5]

Modern Version

People should swear by the name of God alone and only with the mot holy fear and reverence. Therefore to swear an empty or ill-advised oath by that glorious and awe-inspiring name, or to swear at all by anything else, is sinful and to be abhorred. Yet in weighty and significant matters, an oath is authorized by the Word of God to confirm truth and end all conflict. So a lawful oath should be taken when it is required by legitimate authority in such circumstances.

[3] Matthew 5:34, 37; James 5:12  [4] Hebrews 6:16; 2 Corinthians 1:23 [5] Nehemiah 13:25

Having briefly described the nature of an oath, the Confession defends the propriety of lawful oaths in the second paragraph.

First of all, “sinful” oaths are identified and condemned. Idolatrous oaths are those in which invoke any one or thing except the one true God as witness (Joshua 23:7; Jeremiah 5:7; Zephaniah 1:5). Vain oaths are those taken flippantly for trivial matters or with the intent to deceive (Exodus 20:7; Matthew 23:16-22). Rash oaths are those taken in haste without proper forethought or solemnity (Numbers 30:6; Ecclesiastes 5:2-5). All such oaths are forbidden and condemned by Scripture (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 6:13; Jeremiah 5:7; Matthew 5:33-37).

Especially strong is Christ’s censure in the Sermon on the Mount:

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord.” But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your “Yes” be “Yes,” and your “No,” “No.” For whatever is more than these is from the evil one (Matt 5:33-37, NKJV).

Because Quakers and some Anabaptists frequently cited this censure, which is repeated by the apostle James (5:12), the Puritans felt constrained to defend the propriety of lawful oaths in the second half of this paragraph. They affirmed that, in certain circumstances, “an oath is warranted by the word of God.” In fact, the Puritans not only viewed lawful oaths as appropriate, but also as mandatory when imposed by a lawful authority.5

The Scripture offers the following support for lawful oaths:

1. The commands to swear in Jehovah’s name and the prohibitions against swearing falsely assume the propriety of lawful oaths (Exodus 20:7; Leviticus19:12; Deuteronomy 6:13; 10:20).

2. The Mosaic Law sometimes required the swearing of an oath (Exodus 22:10, 11; Leviticus 5:1; 6:3; Numbers 5:19-22; 1 Kings 8:31).

3. The example of many OT saints vindicates the use of lawful oaths: Abraham (Genesis 24:2); Jacob (Genesis 47:30-31); Joseph (Genesis 50:25); Elijah (1 Kings 17:1); Nehemiah (Nehemiah 5:12; 13:25); and Ezra (Ezra 10:5).

4. The example of Christ and the Apostle Paul vindicate the use of lawful oaths (Matthew 26:62-64; Romans 1:9; 2 Corinthians 1:23; Philippians 1:8).

5. The example of God Himself vindicates the use of lawful oaths (Genesis 22:16; Numbers 14:28; Deuteronomy 32:40; Psalm 95:11; Jeremiah 22:5; Amos 6:8; 8:7; Luke 1:73; Hebrews 6:13-17).

But if lawful oaths are appropriate, then why does Jesus say, “Do not swear at all” (Matthew 5:34)? Why does He say, “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one” (Matthew 5:37)?

In light of the ample biblical support for lawful oaths, we must not interpret Christ’s censure as an absolute prohibition against all oaths. Rather, as indicated by the context, Jesus is condemning Pharisaic casuistry and misuse of the Law.

The Pharisees took the Old Testament command “do not swear falsely, but perform [one’s] oaths to the Lord,” and they shifted the emphasis from the integrity of the oath to the formula of the oath. No longer was the emphasis upon keeping one’s promise, but now it was on the phrase “to the Lord.”

As a result, the Pharisees concluded that one might break his oath provided that he did not swear by the Lord.6 In fact, they devoted an entire book to distinguish between the kinds of oaths that could be broken and those that were obligatory! (cf. Matthew 23:16-22). Thus, Jesus’ censure was not against lawful oath-taking but against sinful oath-taking.7

The solemnity of a lawful oath (23.3)

Original Text

Whosoever taketh an oath warranted by the Word of God, ought duly to consider the weightiness of so solemn an act, and therein to avouch nothing but what he knoweth to be truth; for that by rash, false, and vain oaths, the Lord is provoked, and for them this land mourns.[6]

Modern Version

Whoever takes an oath authorized by the Word of God should consider with due gravity the seriousness of such a weighty act and to affirm nothing in it except what one knows to be true. For the Lord is provoked by ill-advised, false, and empty oaths, and because of them this land mourns.

[6] Lev. 19:12; Jer. 23:10

The third paragraph underscores the solemnity of oath-taking. Oaths should only be taken when required by a lawful authority or when circumstances demand it.8 The Baptists added a closing phrase, which highlights the consequences of sinful oath taking—God’s anger is provoked and society suffers. But Baptists also omitted a significant section of the WCF, which they apparently felt was sufficiently addressed elsewhere in the chapter.9


The sincerity of a lawful oath (23.4)

Original Text

An oath is to be taken in the plain and common sense of the words, without equivocation or mental reservation.[7]

Modern Version

An oath is to be expressed in the plain and ordinary meaning of the words, without any ambiguity or mental reservation.

[7] Psalm 24:4

The fourth paragraph addresses the need for absolute integrity in oath-taking. As pointed out earlier, some of the Pharisees were “spinsters.” They were experts at twisting the meaning of words and phrases (Matthew 5:33-37; 23:16-22).

But such dishonest “word games” were not limited to Jesus’ day. Today, an American president can justify perjury because he intended something different than his interrogator when he used the word “is.” Liberal pastors and theologians can confess adherence to evangelical doctrinal standards after they “reinterpret” such words and phrases as “inspiration,” “deity of Christ,” “virgin birth,” “resurrection” and so on. Taxpayers can justify “fudging” on their tax return form on the basis of a loose interpretation of the phrase “to the best of my knowledge and belief.”

This is precisely the kind of dishonest casuistry censured by this paragraph and forbidden by Scripture (Leviticus 19:12; Matthew 5:34-36). As G. I. Williamson appropriately remarks,

The taking of an oath with secret intention of double meaning, not disclosed to others, or with mental reservations, whereby the mind silently voices dissent from part or all of what is being sworn, is a sin of enormity.10

That is because the Bible commends absolute honesty and fidelity (Psalm 24:4; Matthew 5:37; James 5:12).

The WCF includes some important qualifying and clarifying remarks, not included the Baptist Confession:

[An oath] cannot oblige to sin; but in anything not sinful, being taken, it binds to performance, although to a man’s own hurt. Nor is it to be violated, although made to heretics, or infidels.

I am uncertain why the Baptist Confession omitted these remarks. But I find them helpful.

To begin with, an oath to do something sinful is non-binding. For example, an individual might wrongly swear allegiance to an apostate church. Later he is converted and realizes his error. In such a case, he not only may, but he must break that oath. A. A. Hodge notes that in such a case, “The sin is in taking the oath to do the unlawful thing, not in breaking it.”11 One might add that breaking an oath that leads to sin is act of obedience.

On the other hand, the WCF indicates that oaths resulting in personal loss or inconvenience are not to be broken. The righteous man “swears to his own hurt and does not change” (Psalm 15:4).

In the spring of 1992, I made a commitment to serve another year as a Graduate Assistant teaching Greek at seminary. Just before the school year I realized I would have to use a good portion of my savings to supplement our living expenses and regretted the commitment I had made. However, to resign my post would place the university in a difficult position. In light of the biblical teaching on the sincerity of oath-taking, I decided it would be better for me to suffer loss than to break my word.

The WCF also addresses the issue of oaths made to heretics or infidels. Historically, the Roman Catholic Church had justified the practice of breaking oaths to those judged to be heretics or infidels. One of the most notorious examples was the case of Bohemian Reformer Jan Hus. In 1414 the Emperor Sigismund invited Hus to a council in Constance and promised him safe conduct. But the Catholic authorities arrested and imprisoned Hus. Under pressure from the Church, the emperor informed Hus that he was not bound to keep his promise of safe conduct since Hus was a heretic.12

The Puritans rightly condemned such deceptive behavior. They commended the virtuous example of Joshua, who kept his oath with the Gibeonites though they had deceived him into making the oath (Joshua 9:1-20).

Concerning Lawful Vows (23.5)

Original Text

A vow, which is not to be made to any creature, but to God alone, is to be made and performed with all religious care and faithfulness;[8] but popish monastical vows of perpetual single life,[9] professed poverty,[10] and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself.[11]

Modern Version

A vow must not be made to any creature but to God alone. Vows should be made and performed with the most conscientious care and faithfulness. However, Roman Catholic monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverity, and obedience to monastic rules, are by no means steps to higher perfection. Instead, they are superstitious and sinful snares in which Christians may not entangle themselves.

[8] Psalm 76:11; Genesis 28:20-22  [9] 1 Corinthians 7:2, 9  [10] Ephesians 4:28  [11] Matthew 19:11

The English terms “oath” and “vow” are sometimes used interchangeably. But the Old and New Testaments employ distinct vocabulary for each concept.13 Though oaths and vows are clearly related (cf. Numbers 30:2), an oath refers to a promise made in God’s presence to another human party; whereas a vow refers to a promise made directly to God.

The vows in Scripture often included both a negative and also a positive pledge. Negatively, the individual promised to abstain from some liberty, comfort, or necessity for a period of time. For example, the Nazarite promised to abstain from grape products, cutting his hair, and touching anything dead (Numbers 6:2-8; Judges 13:5-7; cf. Numbers 30:3ff.). David vowed to give himself no rest until he had found a resting place for the Ark (Psalm 132:2-5).

Positively, the individual pledged his (or another’s) time, energies, and/or resources to God’s service. Jephthah vowed to sacrifice the first living thing from his home that greeted him should God grant him victory in battle (Judges 11:30, 31). Hannah vowed to dedicate Samuel to God’s service (1 Samuel 1:11, 27, 28). As these examples demonstrate, vows were often conditioned upon God’s answering prayer (cf. Genesis 28:20-22). In other cases, vows were offered as a thankful response to prayers already answered (Psalm 22:25; 50:14; 116:14-19).

Since vows are closely related to oaths (cf. Numbers 30:2), much of the Confession’s teaching concerning the latter would also apply to the former. This may be the reason why the Baptist’s abbreviated three of the WCF’s paragraphs into one paragraph. Monastic vows were one issue the Baptists did judge worthy of reiteration. These included vows of celibacy, poverty, and unquestioned submission to the Church. Since all these practices are unbiblical,14 the Puritans rightly viewed such vows as “superstitious and sinful snares,” and as a result, non-binding.15

Closing applications

Below are a few practical “take aways” from our study.


Glorifying God and Doing Good to Men

In light of the potential dangers of oaths, we might be tempted to avoid them altogether. However, there are times when oaths are prudent and necessary. According to Scripture, a properly taken oath glorifies God (Deuteronomy 10:20-21).

By taking an oath in God’s name we publicly confess our faith in the one true God who is omniscient, omnipresent, and just. Furthermore, oaths have the potential to promote good among men. Jochem Douma explains,

A society that respects the oath is not easily disrupted. In this kind of society, people still recoil from lying and expend energy in taking their office or calling seriously. An oath-bound monarch is bound by the rights of his subjects that have been established in the constitution, so that his administration does not exercise tyranny. Oath-bound physicians are committed to healing their patients. An oath-bound officer serves the preservation of the state. An oath-bound property assessor can be expected to estimate property value honestly. By means of an oath in court, witnesses are restrained from declaring the innocent to be guilty, or the guilty to be innocent. By means of the oath, we are placed before the very face of God. Reverence for God has salutary consequences for society.16

It might be added that reverent oath taking can have salutary consequences for the church in settling unresolved interpersonal strife or conflict.

The Importance of Honesty and Commitment

The Bible and Confession require absolute honesty and unflinching commitment from those employ oaths and vows, especially those in positions of leadership. Those of us who have taken wedding vows or pledged commitment to a local church need to reflect upon the high demands under which we have placed ourselves. Too often, professing Christians quietly qualify their promises with all sorts of secret conditions and provisos. As a result, the marriage vow or church covenant loses much of its binding force.17

Christian leaders also need to take seriously their ministerial oaths and vows. Too often in our day, pastors and theologians publicly vow allegiance to a Confession of Faith while secretly at variance with substantial doctrines in that confession. This kind of behavior is unethical and irreprehensible among those who should be models of integrity. “It is little wonder,” writes G. I. Williamson, “that the spiritual condition of the churches is low, when it has become accepted practice to swear deceitfully, and that on the part of the shepherds of Israel.”18

Of course, such a commitment does not preclude a Christian taking “exceptions” to wording, propositions, or even doctrines in a Confession so long as he makes those exceptions known. No confession is infallible. And even those who can substantially affirm comprehensive confessions like the WCF or 2LCF may find some statements that need to be refined. But what the person must not do is be dishonest or deceptive. If he takes exceptions to any teachings in the confession, he should make those exceptions known.


Don’t Be Too Hasty!

It’s common practice among evangelical churches today to pressure small children into making pledges of commitment to Christian service. Sometimes young children are encouraged to sign a pledge card or publicly to dedicate their lives to “fulltime” Christian service.

As the child grows, his family and friends, as well as his own conscience remind him of this pledge. As a result, he may struggle with feelings of guilt at the thought of pursuing a secular vocation. This practice not only betrays a false view of “fulltime” Christian service, but it also reflects a lack of wisdom among those who pressure children into these formal pledges.

Since oaths and vows should not be made lightly or rashly, we must be sure that those upon whom we call to make them are mentally and spiritually able to understand and fulfill the commitment they are making. The high ethical demands of oaths and vows should caution us against the practice of pressuring small children to make unwarranted or untimely pledges to God.


Endnotes

1 The Westminster Confession contains seven paragraphs; the 1689 five. The Baptist Confession omits part of the third and fourth paragraphs, and it combines the substance of the fifth, sixth, and seventh paragraphs of the WCF into one paragraph.
2 The WCF includes “religious oaths [and] vows” as elements of worship (WCF 21.5), but both the Savoy Declaration and Baptist Confession omit them.

3 Or “the gods” in the case of paganism (Joshua 23:7; 1 Kings 19:2; 20:10; Jeremiah 5:7; Zephaniah 1:5).

4 There is biblical evidence that the “thigh” (ירך) in this context was a metonym or euphemism for the genitals (cf. Genesis 46:26; Exodus 1:5). The significance of this gesture is uncertain though there is probably some connection with circumcision and God’s covenantal promise of a “seed.” Interestingly, the terms “testimony” and “attestation” originate from the Latin word testis (Eng. ‘testicle’) which suggests the possibility that Roman society may have associated certain oaths with the source of procreative powers.  See Bruce Waltke, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 327.

5 According to the third paragraph in the WCF, “It is a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being imposed by a lawful authority.” Though the 2LCF omitted this statement, they did retain the wording of paragraph two, which clearly affirms that when “imposed by a lawful authority” an oath “ought to be taken.”

6 The behavior of the Pharisees reminds one of the teenage son who, in spite of his father’s clear prohibition not to drink alcohol at the party, defends his disobedience by asserting, “Dad, you said not to drink at the party. You didn’t say I couldn’t drink when I left the party.”

7 For some helpful treatments of the passage in Matthew 5:33-37, see John Broadus, Commentary on Matthew (1886; reprint, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1990), 113-17; Donald Carson, Matthew, vol. 8 of Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 153-55; William Hendricksen, Exposition of the Gospel of Matthew in The New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1973), 306-09.

8 The Confession alluded to such circumstances in the previous paragraph when it spoke of an oath “ending all strife.” Occasionally, situations may arise when someone’s reputation is attacked by accusations that seem to be credible but that cannot be either proved or disproved. Under such circumstances, requiring the defendant to swear an oath may serve to bring the dispute to a close. See Jochem Douma, The Ten Commandments: Manual for the Christian Life (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1996), 88-89.

9 The following section of the WCF has been omitted: “… neither may any man bind himself by oath to anything but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform. Yet it is a sin to refuse an oath touching anything that is good and just, being imposed by lawful authority….”

10 The Westminster Confession of Faith for Study Classes (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1964), 175.

11 Commentary on the Confession of Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1901), 392; G. I. Williamson’s remarks are also helpful: “It was wrong to make such an oath in the first place. It would be doubly wrong to keep it after discovering that it was sinful.” For Study Classes, 176.

12 Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (1910; reprint, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 6:371-88.

13 The Hebrew vocabulary for “oaths” includes שבע (‘to swear’), שבועה (‘oath’), אלה (‘curse’), and for “vows” נדר (‘to vow,’ ‘vow’), אסר (‘to vow to abstain,’ ‘a vow of abstention’). The Greek vocabulary for “oaths” includes ὁρκίζω, ὀμνύω, ἐνορκίζω (‘to swear’), ὅρκος, ὁρκωμοσία (‘oath’), and εὐχή (‘vow’).

14 Against imposed celibacy, see Matthew 19:11; 1 Corinthians 7:2, 9; 1 Timothy 3:2; 4:1, 3; against imposed poverty, see Exodus 20:15; Acts 5:4; against unquestioned submission to ecclesiastical authority, see Acts 4:19, 20; 5:29.

15 It was this realization that freed Martin Luther to renounce his former monastic vow of celibacy and to marry Catherine von Bora. See Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 7:454-60.

16 The Ten Commandments, 90.

17 For Study Classes, 176.

18 Ibid.

Confessional Subscription: Strict vs. Substantial

We normally associate the term “subscription” with an arrangement to receive a certain number of periodicals, journals, and/or magazines to which we’ve “subscribed.” In religious or ecclesiastical parlance, however, the terminology “subscription” or “subscribe” when predicated of a creed, confession, or doctrinal statement refers to one’s agreement with or affirmation of a fixed body of doctrines or articles of faith that are officially representative of a church’s or denomination’s beliefs. The issue of subscription is important for churches or ecclesiastical bodies that are self-consciously “confessional,” especially as it relates to the commitment expected of the church’s or denomination’s officers and teachers.

Degrees 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.[1] 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.

Strict Subscription Defined

From a desire to preserve the church’s orthodoxy and doctrinal distinctives, some Reformed leaders today advocate a “strict” form of subscription. Those who advocate this form of subscription usually define it both in terms of the nature and also the extent of one’s commitment to the Confession. As to the nature of the subscriber’s commitment, he is to affirm the Confession’s teaching because it is biblical in contrast to affirming its teaching insofar as it is biblical. This mode of subscription is usually identified by the Latin term quia (meaning “because”) as opposed to quatenus (meaning “insofar as”). With regard to the extent of the subscriber’s agreement, he is to affirm the Confession in its entirety. Accordingly, this form of subscription is also called “full subscription.”

Nothing More or Less than the Very Doctrines of Scripture

Advocates of this kind of subscription include R. Scott Clark,[2] Morton Smith,[3] and George Knight III.[4] Smith, for example, identifies “full subscription” with quia subscription[5] 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.[6]

More specifically, for Smith and Knight, “The Confession and Catechisms assert nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word of God” (emphasis added).[7] This perspective seems consistent with Clark’s quia 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.[8]

 

Every Doctrine, Not Necessarily Every Word

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.[9] 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.[10]

This raises certain questions. To begin with, what constitutes a “doctrine” or “teaching”? In his debate with William Barker, Morton Smith agreed to the following definition or description:

Every declaratory statement states something true or false. And every declaratory statement in the Standards is either one doctrine or several doctrines.[11]

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, like the 1689, uses the term “vulgar language” to mean the vernacular (1.8).[12] Smith also alluded to the Larger Catechism’s prohibition of “keeping of stews” (WLC Q139).[13] In these cases, we may suppose that Dr. Smith would recom­mend we substitute them with synonymous expressions that would be intelligible to a modern audience.

Two other examples offered by Smith 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 (cf. WCF 7.4). Apparently, one could disagree with that term as an appropriate gloss for the Hebrew and Greek terms yet still affirm the doctrine that term was conveying. 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.[14]

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.”[15] 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.[16]

“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.”[17] 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.”[18] 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.[19]

Some Problems with Strict Subscription

While I respect the good intentions behind those who advocate this mode of subscription, I believe it’s unwise and potentially unhealthy. In particular, I see at least three problems with strict subscription.

Inconsistent

If the church believes the Confession to “assert nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word of God,” on what basis can she allow for exceptions? Moreover, I would submit that to change the meaning of even one word or phrase is to alter the doctrine to which that one word or phrase contributes. For example, how can I say, “I affirm the entire Confession to teach nothing more or nothing less than the very doctrines of Scripture” but simultaneously object to the Confession’s depiction of a biblical covenant as a “testament”? Wouldn’t that be taking exception to a doctrine? Or, to use another example, aren’t we rejecting a doctrine of the 1689 when we refuse to affirm (with Judgment Day certainty!) that the pope (or papacy) is “that [final, eschatological] antichrist”?

It seems to me that for full subscription to be perfectly consistent, it could not allow for any exceptions.[20] After all, if the doctrines of the Confession are nothing more or less than the very teaching of Scripture, what warrant could there be for taking exception to said teaching? Furthermore, the only allowable exceptions to the wording of the Confession would entail one’s preference for a certain synonymous word or phrase over another. For the moment one substitutes a word or phrase that differs in meaning from the original he has altered the doctrine (be it ever so slightly!). This is a departure from what one professes when he subscribes to the Confession in the language demanded by strict or full subscription.

Unrealistic

Those who advocate strict subscription are careful to affirm the primacy of Scripture and subordinate role of the church’s doctrinal standards. The Bible is infallible and ultimately authoritative. The human creeds (including their own confession) are not infallible, and their teaching is derivatively authoritative, insofar as it agrees with the Bible. Yet at times the advocates of strict subscription speak as if there is or could be a one-to-one correspondence between the teaching and authority of Scripture and the teaching and authority of the church’s doctrinal standards. “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” may sound sensible to some. In my opinion, I think it betrays a lack of realism.

The Westminster Standards and the 1689 Confession, unlike some creeds and doctrinal statements, are fairly lengthy and comprehensive documents. Is it really reasonable to advocate a position that requires one to affirm such an extensive doctrinal statement as fully biblical in its entirety? The fact that we deny the Confession is infallible doesn’t necessitate that all the doctrines of the 1689 Confession are erroneous. Nonetheless, given the length and breadth of the Confession, it’s highly probable that there’s some part of the Confession—be it ever so small and limited—that’s not quite in accord with Scripture.[21] Accordingly, I find strict subscription, especially when tied to lengthy and comprehensive doctrinal standards, to be an unrealistic expectation to place upon the subscriber.[22]

Unhealthy

I don’t question the sincerity and conviction of those who advocate an unqualified full subscription yet simultaneously insist that they’re not elevating the Confession to the level of Scripture. However, I fear that the practice of an unqualified full subscription will often have the very practical consequences that these sincere brothers wish to avoid. It will bind men’s conscience to the Confession in a way that only Scripture itself warrants. Moreover, it will make the Confession practically unamendable and irreformable, which undermines the Reformation principles of sola Scriptura and semper reformanda.

An unqualified full subscription promotes an inordinate and unhealthy view of the Confession relative to the Scripture. The late Dr. John Murray wrote,

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.[23]

In other words, our first and primary calling and commitment is to teach the whole counsel of God as taught in Scripture, not necessarily to teach and defend the Confession.[24] Murray’s reservations about a strict form of subscription also surface in the reflections of Benjamin B. Warfield. “The most we can expect,” writes Warfield, “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.[25]

Furthermore, an unqualified full subscription can quench the Spirit’s ongoing work of illumination and, as a result, the church’s ongoing reformation. John Fesko, a professor at Westminster Seminary California, remarks, “If we posses [sic] the very doctrines of Scripture in the Standards, then how is one supposed to disagree or revise ‘the very doctrines of Scripture’?”[26] That is, one would have to renounce his vow before he could ever entertain the thought that per­haps something he’s reading in the Bible doesn’t quite mesh with something taught in his Confession.[27]

In order to protect the supremacy of Scripture and to keep the church’s doctrinal standards in a position where they’re subject to the scrutiny of God’s Word, I suggest some other form of subscription than the version of strict or full subscription described above.

A Better Way: Substantial Subscription

Smith and Clark argue that if a Confession is unbiblical at any point, the church ought to renounce whatever article is out of accord with Scripture and adopt one that is in accord with Scripture.[28] Of course, there’s an element of truth in this sentiment. Ideally, if we know something’s wrong, we ought to fix it. On the other hand, in a sin-cursed world we shouldn’t expect a perfect confession.[29] Nor is it easy to get churches to amend their confessions.

Dr. Sam Waldron reflects a more realistic view, in my opinion. As he stated it in an address to the 2010 General Assembly of the Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America, “I believe in the 1689 Baptist Confession …. It’s not a perfect confession; it’s just so much better than all the rest.”[30] If that’s the way we view the 1689 Confession—not perfect but the best we know of—then shouldn’t the kind of confessional subscription we expect and promote correspond to our view of the Confession, i.e., the best, but not perfect?

Substantial Subscription Defined

For that reason, I prefer the mode of subscription required by Reformed Baptist Seminary. In its Articles of Cooperation, the Reformed Baptist Seminary declares,

The doctrinal standard of RBS will be the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. This requires that every overseeing church and every instructor in the seminary must substantially subscribe to this confession (emphasis added).

One should distinguish “substantial subscription” from what is known as “substance subscription.” The term “substance” in this context means something like “essentials” or “fundamentals.” The idea is that one is affirming whatever he or the church deems to be the essentials or fundamentals of the Confession without adopting the entire Confession. Historically, this mode of subscription has tended to allow too much latitude. “Essential” is only intelligible when one ties it to some reference point. On the one hand, it may simply refer to the bare essentials of Christianity. On the other hand, it may refer more narrowly to the essentials of Reformed Christianity. In any case, it seems to allow a bit too much fluidity.

“Substantial subscription” is closer to the kind of “system subscription” known as “Good Faith Subscription,” which has been officially adopted by the PCA and which reflects the “Old School Presbyterian” version of system subscription. This mode of subscription requires that the subscriber affirm the system of doctrine contained in the Confession, which “system” is presumably “Reformed theology.” Moreover, it requires the ordaining entity to query the candidate concerning any scruples and requires the candidate in “good faith” to be open and honest about any and all scruples he may have with respect to the confessional standards. The ordaining authority must then determine whether any of the candidate’s reservations or exceptions are “out of accord with any fundamentals of the system of doctrine” and ensure that his exception is “neither hostile to the system nor strikes at the vitals of religion.”

Though similar to system subscription, I prefer the modifier “substantial.” The primary usage of “substantial” is “of ample or considerable amount, quantity, size, etc.” Thus, unlike “substance” or “system” forms of subscription, substantial conveys the message that the subscriber is in agreement with a significant proportion of the Confession. Moreover, like “good faith” subscription, substantial subscription requires the subscriber to be open and honest about any and all of his scruples related to the teaching of the Confession. Furthermore, like “system subscription,” substantial subscription is tighter than substance subscription.

But substantial subscription goes farther than system subscription in that it formally conveys a high level of agreement not merely with the system in the Confession but with the Confession as a whole. Indeed, since substantial subscription takes the whole Confession as its starting point and since by its nature only allows for a limited amount of non-substantive exceptions,[31] it may be viewed as a version of “full subscription” that formally allows for a limited number of non-substantial caveats or exceptions.[32]

Substantial Subscription Commended

I think “substantial subscription” commends itself in several ways.

It guards the doctrine of sola Scriptura.

When the full subscriptionist says, “the Confession asserts nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word of God,” he’s blurring the line between a fallible human document and the infallible Holy Scripture. That may not be his intention, but his mode of subscription lends itself to that effect. I’ve already cited Murray’s warning above. One of my seminary students shared the same concern in his assessment of R. Scott Clark’s quia subscription:

Such an approach muddles the necessary distinction between the supreme authority of Scripture and the subordinate authority of the confession. Sola Scriptura not only means that the church goes to the Word as its standard and rule in all matters of Christian life but also that the church by necessity treat no other standard with the same level of deference and respect owed to the Word.[33]

On the other hand, if we approach the Confession as an excellent though not perfect summary of the doctrines of Scripture and if our form of subscription formally acknowledges that discorrespondence, we maintain the integrity of the Confession (it’s excellent) and we uphold the uniqueness of Scripture (the Confession isn’t infallible; Scripture is).

It protects the integrity of the subscriber’s conscience.

As Francis Turretin observed, “[Creeds] cannot bind the inner court of conscience, except inasmuch as they are found to agree with the word of God (which alone has power to bind the conscience).”[34] Accordingly, if we concede that the Confession doesn’t possess a perfect one-to-one correspondence with Scripture in terms of authority and accuracy, why should we adopt a mode of subscription that seems to require one to view the Confession as “tantamount” to the very doctrines of Scripture? Ironically, I think an unqualified full subscription is more likely to tempt pastors or professors to “fudge” with respect to the integrity of their conscience. John Frame agrees and remarks,

Arguably, the stricter the formula of subscription, the more people will be tempted to subscribe ignorantly or deceptively, keeping to themselves the parts of the confession that they don’t understand, or that they doubt.[35]

 

It maintains a healthy esteem for ecclesiastical tradition.

Not all tradition is bad. Moreover, though Scripture is our supreme authority, that same Scripture delegates authority to the church. Consequently, we should show respect toward creeds and confessions that are expressions of ecclesiastical authority, particularly those that are officially endorsed and adopted by the ecclesiastical body or bodies we serve. The balance, though, is maintaining a high esteem for ecclesiastical tradition and authority without unduly venerating it. As Frame observes,

When the claims of a tradition are suitably modest, and that tradition facilitates the communication of the biblical Word of God, that tradition should be respected, even while being viewed with a critical eye. What we should avoid is traditionalism, such as (1) the view that once a tradition is established, it can never be changed, (2) the notion that some tradition is just as authoritative as Scripture, and (3) the notion that we should not test traditions by the Scriptures.[36]

Substantial subscription affirms that the confession is an “excellent guide” that “facilitates the communication of the biblical Word of God.” But it stops short of requiring a commitment to the Confession that views the Confession’s teaching as “nothing more or less than the very doctrines of the Word of God.”

It encourages a Berean spirit and facilitates semper reformanda.

Our primary concern and preoccupation should be to study the Scriptures. And as we study God’s Word, we need to maintain a willing disposition to bring ecclesiastical tradition into greater conformity with the Holy Scriptures. John Murray encourages this Berean spirit when he notes,

However architectonic may be the systematic construction of any one generation or group of generations, there always remains the need for correction and reconstruction so that the structure may be brought into closer approximation to the Scripture and the reproduction be a more faithful transcript or reflection of the heavenly exemplar.[37]

On the one hand, by publicly declaring the 1689 to be an excellent and overall accurate summary of biblical doctrine and by requiring substantial agreement with it, we discourage those with major differences and divisive agendas from throwing in their lot with us. By formally allowing men to take exceptions, a church or an association isn’t placing an unreasonable stricture on a man that prevents him from evaluating his tradition under the light of Scripture with a critical eye. This mode of subscription upholds the doctrine of sola Scriptura, protects the subscriber’s integrity of conscience, maintains a healthy esteem for ecclesiastical tradition (thereby preserving orthodoxy and our theological distinctives), and facilitates the application of semper reformanda to our Confession, freeing us to make a good thing even better.
_______________

Endnotes: 

[1] 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: Our Theology, Piety, and Practice (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2008), 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.
[2] See Recovering the Reformed Confession, 177-91.
[3] 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.
[4] See George W. Knight III, “Subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms,” in The Practice of Subscription, 119-148.
[5] Holding Fast to the Faith: A Brief History of Subscription to Creeds and Confessions with Particular Reference to Presbyterian Churches (Self-Published, 2003), 15.
[6] “The Case for Full Subscription,” 185.
[7] 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  (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.
[8] Emphasis his; Recovering the Reformed Confession, 178. For a helpful review and critique of Clark’s book, see Nicolas Alford’s “The Quest for Illegitimate Religious Traditionalism (QIRT): A Review of R. Scott Clark’s Recovering the Reformed Confession” (accessed Nov 16, 2011).
[9] “The Case for Full Subscription,” 185.
[10] Ibid., 186.
[11] 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).
[12] Today, “vulgar language” normally denotes crude, coarse, or obscene language.
[13] 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.
[14] I gleaned these examples from the audio debate between Barker and Smith.
[15] Ibid., 178.
[16] Ibid., 180.
[17] Holding Fast to the Faith, 60.
[18] Ibid.
[19] This was stated at about 49 minutes into the debate.
[20] Or as Smith suggests, at least bar men from teaching such exceptions.
[21] Scripture is God speaking to man. Theology is human reflection on God’s revelation. Thus, the distinction between Scripture and theology reflects the Creator/creature distinction. Failure to distinguish between the authority of Scripture and the authority of human creeds results in a blurring of the Creator/creature distinction. Of course, we must also affirm the possibility of correspondence between divine revelation and human theology. God’s knowledge is archetypal and our knowledge is echtypal. D. A. Carson illustrates the analogical but not univocal relation of objective truth and subjective interpretation of the truth with the asymptote. He observes, “A curved line may approach a strait line asymptotically, never quite touching it but always getting closer…. In precisely the same way, we may not aspire to absolute knowledge of the sort only Omniscience may possess, but the ‘approximation’ may be so good that it is adequate for placing human beings on the moon.” The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 121.
[22] The so-called Apostles’ Creed is not nearly as comprehensive as the WCF or 1689. While most Reformed believers can affirm the Apostles’ Creed, a good number would take exception to the phrase that depicts Jesus as descending into hell. At the very least, they’d feel the need to qualify that language.
[23] “Creed Subscription in the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.” in The Subscription Debate (Greenville, SC: Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, n.d.), 79.
[24] Certainly, the Confession may and should serve as a helper and a guide in our proclamation and defense of Scripture. As Spurgeon expressed it to his congregation, “This little volume is not issued as an authoritative rule, or code of faith, whereby you are to be fettered, but as an assistance to you in controversy, a confirmation in faith, and a means of edification in righteousness.” Cited in the preface to the Baptist Confession of Faith of 1689 (Carlisle, PA: Grace Baptist Church, n.d.), 8.
[25] 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.
[26] “The Legacy of Old School Confession Subscription in the OPC,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 46:4 (Dec 2003): 695.
[27] John Frame agrees and writes, “[Confessions] could never be amended; anyone who advocated change would auto­matically be a vow-breaker and subject to discipline.” Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987), 308. Similarly, James E. Urish remarks, “Of course, if one took the ‘strict’ full subscriptionist position, one could not teach anything contrary to any articles in the Confession or Catechism. One wonders how the Church could ever perfect these standards with this kind of constraint. It does seem that from the full subscriptionist position there is an implicit assumption that the Westminster Standards fully or satisfactorily summarize the teaching of the Bible and ought not to be amended.” “A Peaceable Plea About Subscription: Toward Avoiding Future Divisions,” in The Practice of Subscription, 223.
[28] In his debate with Will Barker, Smith remarks, “If we don’t believe them, then we should not prescribe them” (about 58 minutes into the audio, Part 1). Clark’s viewpoint has been cited above.
[29] John Frame avers, “There is no perfect creed, and there never will be. A perfect creed would of necessity have the same authority as Scripture, and that can never be.” Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, 305.
[30] Emphasis added. I’m citing from the opening words of Waldron’s sermon “A Church with a Passion for God’s Son and God’s Glory,” which may be downloaded here (accessed Nov 16, 2011).
[31] One important note on “exceptions.” Exceptions do not necessarily imply belief that a statement is unbiblical. Exceptions can also mean that the statement is a matter of opinion that shouldn’t be elevated to level of the 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.
[32] The Association of Reformed Baptist Churches of America (ARBCA) requires “full subscription” but has apparently taken a step in the direction of formally allowing for exceptions. In a recently drafted set of procedural guidelines for handling exceptions, the association states, “Any exceptions to terminology or phrases must be stated by the applying church to the sponsoring church before application to ARBCA. No exception may undermine the integrity of the doctrine in any Article, or the integrated system of the historic Reformed Faith in the confession, or any of our Baptist distinctives defined in the Confession.”
[33] Nicolas Alford, “Confessional Imbroglio” (Unpublished paper, 2010), 4-5.
[34] Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1997), 3:284.
[35] The Doctrine of the Word of God (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2010), 287n.5.
[36] The Doctrine of the Word of God, 282.
[37] The Covenant of Grace (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1988), 5. In a similar vein, Murray warns, “However epochal have been the advances made at certain periods and however great the contributions of particular men we may not suppose that theological construction ever reaches definitive finality. There is the danger of a stagnant traditionalism and we must be alert to this danger, on the one hand, as to that of discarding our historical moorings, on the other.” “Systematic Theology,” in vol. 4 of Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), 7-8.

Joy Comes in the Mourning

 

Do you know what it’s like to feel the sorrow of a bereaved mother? A mother’s life is wrapped up in the care and well-being of her children. When those children are taken away from her or, worse, when they’re wantonly slaughtered before her eyes, it’s like ripping out her heart. She feels empty. She feels as if she no longer has any purpose for existence. Perhaps you’re experiencing that kind of grief. You’ve not been bereaved of your children, but you feel the same kind of empty sorrow. You feel hopeless and without purpose in the world.

But there is hope if you will believe the good news about Jesus Christ. Weeping may endure for the night, but joy will come in the “mourning.” That’s one of the biblical themes that the apostle Matthew highlights in his Gospel account. Let’s reflect on how Matthew develops this theme in the second chapter of his Gospel.

The Slaughter of Bethlehem’s Children

When most people think of birth of Christ and the little town of Bethlehem, they have in mind a beautiful and peaceful scene—shepherds and wise men worshiping the young Christ. But that is not the whole picture. Matthew would remind us that from the very beginning, there was much hatred aimed at the Lord Jesus Christ—hatred that resulted in the shedding of innocent blood!

In the second chapter of his Gospel, Matthew records an event that followed the birth of Christ: the slaughter of Bethlehem’s children. According to verse 7, Herod had learned from the wise men when the star first appeared. Then, once he realized that the wise man had become privy to Herod’s scheme and escaped, he calculated the time elapsed from the appearing of the star, and he sent his soldiers to slaughter every male child two years and under.

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men (Matt 2:16 ESV).

Matthew’s portrait of Herod accords well with secular history. History portrays Herod as a very gifted and capable leader, which is one of the reasons he was called “Herod the Great.” In his lifetime, he had many achievements to boast to his credit. But Herod was also a very cunning and cruel ruler. During the latter years of his rule, Herod became very suspicious that someone would usurp his throne. In fact, we’re told that he had three of his seven sons murdered, as well as one of this wives, because he suspected them of treason. For this reason, the Roman Emperor is reported to have said: “Better to be Herod’s pig [hus] than his son [huios].”

So it should be no surprise us to see Herod responding this way to the news that the King of the Jews has been born. Bethlehem’s population was probably under 1000 people, which, according to statistics, would put the number of baby boys slaughtered at around 20-30. Can you imagine such a horrible scene? Why would Matthew include such a gory scene in his gospel?

Not Everybody Loves Jesus

Commenting on this text, J. C. Ryle notes that Christ is portrayed as “‘a man of sorrows’ even from his infancy.”[1] Don’t let the sweet little Nativity Scenes fool you. Here’s the “rest of the story”: not everybody loves Jesus. And there are still people today who, like Herod, would rather murder the Christ than worship Him.

What’s more, if you’ve been a Christian for very long and if you’ve made a public commitment to Christ, you know about the opposition. You’ve experienced the truth underscored by the apostle Paul: “All who live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Tim 3:12).

The End of Rachel’s Tears

There is another reason why Matthew includes this tragic incident. According to verses 17 and 18, this gruesome event was no mere accident, but it happened in order to fulfill OT Scripture:

Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: ”A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt 2:17–18 ESV).

Ramah was a city located on the border between Ephraim and Benjamin, about 5 miles north of Jerusalem and 10 miles north of Bethlehem. This is significant, because Ephraim was part of the Northern kingdom and Benjamin was part of the Southern kingdom. According to Jeremiah 40:1, the city of Ramah was used as a staging place for the deportation of God’s people into captivity. Rachel was one of Jacob’s wives. She had two sons: her first son was Joseph, to whom was born Ephraim. Her second son was Benjamin.

The Tragedy of the Exile

But Rachel has been dead for over 1,000 years. How could she be weeping? Obviously, Jeremiah is using figurative language to portray Rachel as the mother of the nation—Ephraim represents the north and Benjamin represents the south. From the grave the mother of the nation weeps for her children, and she refuses to be comforted because they are no more!

Try to imagine what this would be like. Families are literally being tom apart. Husbands and wives are being exiled to separate locations. Brothers and sisters will never see one another again. Mothers are being separated from their children. What great sorrow and grief! As Matthew reflects upon the sorrow experienced by the mothers at Ramah and that experienced by the mothers at Bethlehem, he obviously sees a clear correspondence.

All Hope Seems Lost!

But the correspondence is much deeper than mere emotional grief. As you know, the hope of redemption was bound up in the promise of a male seed who would descend from the nation of Israel, from the tribe of Judah, and from the line of David.

But when the young men of Israel—especially the descendants of David—were lined up in Ramah to be exiled from the Land of Promise, all hope of redemption seemed to be lost! All hope of salvation forever vanished!

Joy Comes in the “Mourning”!

And yet, all is not hopeless! “Though weeping may endure for the night; joy comes in the morning” (Psa 30:5). And so, the Jeremiah assures God’s people:

Thus says the LORD: “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the LORD, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country” (Jer 31:16–17 ESV).

Jeremiah’s prophecy is not primarily a prophecy about sadness and grief. It’s primarily a message about joy and hope! In fact, as you know this chapter goes on to predict the coming of a New Covenant! (31:31-34). Yes, tears will precede the joy. But joy will come in the morning!

Jesus Wipes Away Tears

That’s Jeremiah’s message, and I believe Matthew’s point is that the “end of Rachel’s grief” portrayed by Jeremiah has come to fulfillment in the coming of the Messiah which began with the grief of Bethlehem’s mothers. In other words, the weeping mothers of Bethlehem do not merely recapitulate the sorrow experienced at Ramah. But they serve as a harbinger of the Messianic hope foretold by Jeremiah! As Donald Carson writes

The tears of the exile are being fulfilled—the tears begun in Jeremiah’s day are climaxed and ended by the tears of the mothers of Bethlehem. The heir to David’s throne has come, the Exile is over, the true Son of God has arrived, and he will introduce the new covenant promised by Jeremiah.[2]

Isn’t that glorious! Let me put it in more practical terms: Christ is the end of sadness and grief and He is the beginning of joy and hope to all who will believe. And that’s true for sinner and saint alike! Whoever you are, look to Christ and find joy in the midst of your mourning.
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[1] Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, 1:15.
[2] “Matthew” in vol. 8 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 95.