He who hears the shema drinks the shekar!

Friday, March 7, 2008

Confessional Subscription....Redux

There have been all sorts of inquiries and studies into the relationship between the Continental Reformed (a la Calvin, Turretin, etc.) and Presbyterianism (Scotland/England). Underneath a broad consensus that one can see in the mainstream, the 'fine print' often reveals a different story....particularly as seen in matters of polity.

Leaving the often-discussed Sabbath issue aside, one issue in which there seems to be a pretty clear divergence in North America is the Reformed vs. Presbyterian approach to
confessional subscription.

If you want to understand the gist of this argument in its modern form, be sure to check out the very recent (and on-going) exchange between Lee Irons (defending
system subscription here and here) and Scott Clark (defending a stricter subscription here, here, and here) . Or if you prefer them in chronological order: one, two, three, four, and five.

Let me throw in my two cents:

(1) The Limits of Tradition --

North American Presbyterians have been arguing about this since the Adopting Act of 1729 -- it required men to "declare their agreement in, and approbation of" the Westminster standards but
also limited subscription to "all essential and necessary articles" of the Confession of Faith and catechisms. It's the Adopting Act's 'also' caveat that seems to make my Dutch friends cringe (not to mention Presbyterians who favor a more strict approach to the Confession), for as best as I can tell -- in my limited exposure to Dutch church history -- this is simply foreign from their way of receiving and adopting the Three Forms of Unity.

Despite the attempts made by Morton Smith and George Knight to show otherwise, the idea of a 'system subscription' in North American Presbyterianism is not a 'recent' development. In fact, it's not even a 'New School' development (c. 1860's). As John Fesko demonstrated quite thoroughly from the original sources in his 2003 JETS article, 'system subscription' has a firm pedigree that can be traced through the likes of Hodge, Warfield, Thornwell, Old Princeton, and all the way to Machen.

So what tradition are you going to go with? The Dutch way or the American Presbyterian/Old Princeton way? Here's a good example, I think, of why you need something more than 'tradition' to answer some of the thorny questions that exist amongst even the best mainstream Reformed thinkers.

(2) Defining our terms --

What do
Presbyterians mean by 'system subscription'? I'll let Charles Hodge do the talking:

Every minister at his ordination is required to declare that he adopts the Westminster Confession and Catechism, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the sacred Scriptures. There are three ways in which these words have been, and still are, interpreted. First, some understand them to mean that every proposition contained in the Confession of Faith is included in the profession made at ordination. Secondly, others say that they mean just what the words import. What is adopted is the 'system of doctrine.' The system of the Reformed Churches is a known and admitted scheme of doctrine, and that scheme, nothing more or less, we profess to adopt. The third view of the subject is, that by the system of doctrine contained in the Confession is meant the essential doctrines of Christianity and nothing more (Discussions in Church Polity, 1878, p.335-36)

Those are our basic three options: (a) strict, (b) system, and (c) substance (a term Hodge himself used elsewhere).

(3) Understanding our terms --

In discussing these options with my Dutch Reformed friends, it seems to me that they invaribly lump options (b) and (c) together. That is, the moment you depart from strict subscription, you're already on the road to dying a death of a million scruples. Options (b) and (c) are really nothing more than two shades of a vary similar looking grey! It frankly devolves into something looking indistinguishable form
slippery slope argument -- that is, system subscription invariably devolves into a substance subscription.

The problem (as with just about all slippery slope arguments) is that it fails to actually understand Old Princeton's Presbyterian rationale for holding to this 'middle' position between strict and substance views. Just like holding to a non-literal '6/24hr day' view of Genesis doesn't automatically mean you are giving up the narrative as a truly historical account, so also holding to system subscription (at least as understood by the likes of Hodge, Warfield, Machen, etc.) doesn't automatically entail making 'everything' in the Confession up for grabs.

This is simply a bad argument against system subscription. Just beacuse someone, somewhere misunderstands and/or abuses system subscription doesn't necessarily mean the thing itself (as understood by
good Presbyterians) is wrong.

(4) Does the stricter view really safeguard orthodoxy?

The main argument in favor of a stricter view seems to ultimately come to this -- it's defenders contend that it's the best way to
guard orthodoxy. There is a sense in which this is true -- system subscription leaves the door open to declare scruples on any number of things, some of which could easily be detrimental to the 'system' contained in the Westminster Standards. Allowing no scruples would certainly seem to solve that problem....or does it?

It seems to me that this is ultimately a practical argument (more than a theological argument), and the problem with 'practical' arguments is that they demonstrate mixed results. Sure, one could argue that examples abound (e.g., the PCUSA, Old-to-New Princeton, etc.) demonstrating the demise of 'system' approaches. But couldn't one also counter-argue that examples abound (e.g. the CRC, the Church of Scotland, etc.) demonstrating the demise of 'strict' approaches? In all of these examples, you had/have a plethora of other factors going on besides simply their views of subscription. And if our standard is simply which one guards orthodoxy the best, it seems to me (if we are
really going to be honest historically!) the results from the last 350 years or so at best reveal a mixed bag.

Another argument in favor of stricter subscription is that this is the only way to achieve and preserve true ecclesiastical unity. But Hodge paints a very different picture:

So far as we have been able to learn from the records, no man has ever been refused admission to the ministry in our Church, who honestly received "the system of doctrine" contained in the Westminster Confession, simply because there are propositions in the book to which he could not assent. And no Presbyterian minister has ever been suspended or deposed on any such ground. It is a perfectly notorious fact, that there are hundreds of ministers in our Church, and that there always have been such ministers, who do not receive all the propositions contained in the Confession of Faith and Catechisms. (The Church and Its Polity, 330)

In other words, hundreds of ministers scrupling certain words and propositions didn't seem to be a huge impediment to overall unity in the old-line Presbyterian church. It held up quite nicely for a number of generations.

So it puzzles me how a stricter view of the Confessions will result in a
more-unified church. Just ask Westminster grads trying to get licensed/ordained in the OPC over the last decade! It's not the 'system subscriptionists' who continually pick bones of contention about one's views on creation, the Law, the Sabbath, etc.

And is the 'young URC' any less devoid of controversy surrounding 'justification' and 'creation' than have been witnessed in the PCA and OPC? So I'm just not buying the 'provides greater unity' argument that strict subscription supposedly brings.

(5) Why then System Subscription?

Here's a Machen quote that will serve as a good starting point:

Subscription to the Westminster Standards in the Presbyterian Church of America [e.g. the precursor to the OPC] is not to every word in those Standards, but only to the system of doctrine which the Standards contain. (The Presbyterian Guardian, October 1936, pg. 45)

Not to
every word.....but only to the system of doctrine!

Machen's careful choice of language gives us a great pulse of the 'system subscription' argument, rightly argued and understood. Why not 'every word'? Hodge, Warfield, Machen, and others were all too aware that language like 'every'
attributes to words a certain 'plenary' status. But once you do that with respect to the Confession's words, how do I now distinguish a plenary view of the Confession's words and plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture's words?

In other words, Old Princeton system subscription took seriously the notion that "All synods or councils, since the apostles' times, whether general or particular,
may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both." (WCF 31.4). Machen might well have resonated with the Belgic Confession on this point: "Therefore we must not consider human writings-- no matter how holy their authors may have been-- equal to the divine writings; nor may we put custom, nor the majority, nor age, nor the passage of time or persons, nor councils, decrees, or official decisions above the truth of God, for truth is above everything else" (Article 7).

It seems to me that a Presbyterian's 2nd ordination vow (i.e. where we subscribe to "the system of doctrine as contained in the Westminster Standards") takes these Confessional qualifications cited here in Westminster and Belgic
more seriously. That is, we want our subscription practice to reflect the Confession's view of Scripture to the degree that we want to make absolutely clear the difference between our primary and secondary standards.

Of course, the strict subscriptionists plead again and again that their view of subscription does not equate Scripture and Confession. I understand and hear it loud and clear (and trust that most of you are 'right' in your own mind before God!)....but the answer sounds upon closer inspection like special pleading. I want to see more than simply an assertion that you distinguish your primary and secondary standards; I want to see
how you actually do it in your ecclesiastical practice. If I am never permitted to object to a certain word or phrase in a Confession, how is that in practice any different to never being able to object to a verse in Hosea or a phrase in Hebrews?

Or consider -- how does one
really and truly go about amending a Confessional standard in a strict-subscription demanding denomination? If (to use one strict subscriptionist's analogy) "Scripture is the house, then Confessions are the wall built around the house!", how could anyone in any ecclesiastical context really and truly ever make an argument from the Scripture without immediately running head-on into the 'wall around the house' that says, "Sorry, but the Confession is the standard of this house -- Goodbye!"? How would even an attempt to do so in an ecclesiastical forum not be met with that kind of Confessional door slamming?

As a Presbyterian, we actually have a
real example of the church amending her secondary standards! No, not the recent 1967 revision....but a much earlier one in 1788. After the Adopting Act in 1729 clarified 'some' of the things that might be scrupled relating to the civil magistrate in WCF 20 and 23, those items (as well sections in Chapt. 31 and WLC Q.109) were officially revised six decades later. In other words, you have a great case study here in drawing a direct connection between 'system subscription' in American Presbyterianism and the 'ecclesiastical ethos' it created, whereby the original 1647 version might be formally revised and amended. [And I trust that most of you reading this blog are probably not big fans of the civil magistrate calling synods and suppressing all blasphemies/heresies (per '1647 WCF' 23.2)!]

When I look at what the WCF confesses about Scripture in Chapter 1 and about synods in Chapter 31, I want a subscription practice that can actually do what it claims to confess, and not merely talk about doing it in theory. The irony here, of course, is that 'system subscription' is often caricatured as being 'anti-Confessional'....when in fact it's actually just the very opposite. Rightly-done 'system subscription' takes WCF 1.9-10 and 31.4 very seriously...and I would argue the most seriously of any of the 3 positions laid out by Hodge! This is not setting up the Scriptures against the Confessions...but rather setting up the Scriptures prior to the Confessions in authority.

That's the upshot of 'why' I'm a 'system subscription' Presbyterian!

(6) A Belgic 'test case'

Lee and Scott both mentioned the matter of Article 4 of the Belgic Confession, which mentions "the fourteen letters of Paul" (e.g. the usual '13' + Hebrews). It never really occurred to me before to ask how Article 4 of the Belgic is actually 'confessed' by those of you guys in the URC.

Honestly, what do you guys do here? I see only 3 options: (a) Do you scruple it? If you do, then how is that any different from 'system subscription'? The whole point of 'system subscription' would be to say something like, "Look, people disagree about the authorship of Hebrews; the essential point is confessing Hebrews as Scripture." (b) Do you really agree with Belgic on this point? or (c) Do you verbally (and theologically) confess to the whole of the 3 Forms down to every jot and tittle...but in your 'heart of hearts' really not believe that small part of the Confession?

Knowing many of you 'URC men'....(a) doesn't fit with your confessional views and (b) doesn't fit with what Steve Baugh, Dennis Johnson, or any other respectable NT scholar teaches today. So how do you then avoid (c) and 'crossing your fingers' when you confess the Three Forms as your confession? This would seem to undercut one of your main arguments against the 'system' view, if you can't even do in practice what you claim to do in theory!

This is why Lee's point about strict subscription's "repristinat[ing] every out-dated notion of 17th century of Reformed Orthodoxy" is not, it seems to me, off base at all. Lee certainly doesn't mean that it all has to go, but rather that we shouldn't be surprised if there are better ways to confess our theology, nor should we be shocked if there are some formulations worth changing. The idea that Paul wrote Hebrews may have been common place in the 16th and 17th century. But if your view of subscription can't even amend something as 'simple' as this, what does that tell you about your practice of subscription? That's the real dagger blow of Lee's argument -- not that strict subscription necessarily starts out with the expressed intent to 'live in the past' but rather that this method of confession doesn't afford it much opportunity to live anywhere else.

This is a small-yet-important test case...partly because it doesn't amount to a hill of beans theologically (apart from someone who insists on reading Paul into Hebrews at every turn, when he simply won't fit). But that's why it makes for an excellent point for discussion, since no serious doctrinal point is on the line. Why didn't the URC revise this when it formally chose to adopt the Three Forms? Did 'the majority' of the URC still believe Paul wrote Hebrews?

I'm not trying to be hopelessly myopic here. But then, my position doesn't require me to subscribe to every word of the Confession; your's does! So help me out here...

(7) Conclusion

It's worth pondering what the WCF means when it says synods and councils
"...are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both" (31.4). Not rule but guide! Why is it not the rule of faith and practice? Because only Scripture (cf. WCF 1.9 and 10) can rightly be said to do that. But such documents from synods and councils can and must serve as a guide in our faith and practice! That's the fine line that the WCF walks between 'traditionalism' on the one side and 'no creed but Christ' on the other! Consequently, we should embrace a subscription that walks the line between 'strict' on the one side and 'substance' on the other.

No approach to subscription (however strict!) is capable of guarding our faith and practice. When we try to make it do so, we inevitably end up asking it to do more than it adequately can. And that simply doesn't bode well for the life of the church, if our goal is to ultimately confess what we believe the Scriptures teach.


Larry said...

Well said. Thank you. I appreciate your distinctions, "In discussing these options with my Dutch Reformed friends, it seems to me that they invaribly lump options (b) and (c) together. That is, the moment you depart from strict subscription, you're already on the road to dying a death of a million scruples. Options (b) and (c) are really nothing more than two shades of a vary similar looking grey! It frankly devolves into something looking indistinguishable form slippery slope argument -- that is, system subscription invariably devolves into a substance subscription." Not *only* Dutch Reformed, I'd suggest. It does seem, though, that one complication in our circles is that some use the terminology of (b) to defend (c). This can occasion others reacting into (a). Thanks again.

Abruzzi said...


Thank you for this helpful post. As a URCNA minister, I appreciated it. You framed the discussion well, I thought.

Let me address something since you stated/asked the following: I'm not trying to be hopelessly myopic here. But then, my position doesn't require me to subscribe to every word of the Confession; your's does! So help me out here....

With regard to your BC Art 4 "test case," I think you are right in terms of the principle. If we, as URCNA ministers, take exception to Pauline authorship on teh grounds that BC 4 is really only concerned with canonicity, then, as far as I can tell, we - in principle - have a form of system subscription.

But, in reality, here is what happens on the floor of Classis at every exam I have been to (and I have been to almost every one in our Classis for the past five years, and been an examiner myself several times): One of the seven examiners will ask the candidate something along the lines of: "Do you subscribe to the Three Forms of Unity? Are you able to sign the Form of Subscription? etc." The candidate INVARIABLY says, "Yes. But I do not believe that Paul wrote Hebrews as BC 4 states. But I believe Hebrews is fully inspired and part of the canon as BC 4 also states." And then no one - the examiner nor the delegates on the floor - objects to this answer. It is, in my experience, a given. The other one that sometimes comes up is BC 9's use of the weaker manuscript of 1 John as a Trinity "prooftext." An explanation is given by the candidate ("Here is how I understand that...") and then the exam moves on.

Now, as I said, you are right, in my opinion, to call that a form of system subscription. But I have never heard anyone ever say something like, 'Well, I take exception to Heidelberg Catechism Q.103 on the Fourth Commandment," or "I take exception to the way in which the Heidelberg Catechism speaks of the law in Q.92" or whatever. In other words, I have never heard any variations from examiners. It is always BC 4 and sometimes BC 9 as well. For my part, I wish the URCNA and all the TFU-confessing churches in NAPARC would just revise the thing. But it is what it is for now.

And what it is, at the end of the day, is different than the system subscription allowed in Presbyterian cicrles. There is a certain amount of unity in TFU confessing churches that doesn't exist in the same way in WS confessing churches (and I am not talking about the anomaly of Presbyterian churches not requiring member-subscription, which is a debate we can have on another day!). If the only objection to the TFU amongst URCNA ministers is Pauline authorship of Hebrews and the 1 John prooftext for the Trinity, then, it sure seems to me that there is a greater amount of agreement on the standards than is possible amongst Presbyterian ministers who have varying exceptions as allowed by their presbyteries. I don't ever expect to meet another URCNA minister at Synod who might say, "Well, I take an exception to HC Q.103" or something like that.

Now, don't get me wrong, if I were in the OP or the PCA, I would definitely take a couple of exceptions to the WS while remaining within the system of doctrine, and one of them would be with regard to the Sabbath. But this raises an issue that you didn't seem to address in your post: it is a lot easier to subscribe the TFU in the way URCNA ministers do (call it what you will) than it would be for Presbyterian ministers to do with the WS. The WS simply says a lot more than the TFU does. For example, the WCF has a whole chapter on the Sabbath, whereas the TFU has only one catechism question.

So, all of that is to say that I while I appreciate your honesty about system subscription in both of our traditions, I am not sure that the comparison between the two is all that simple. For one, our standards are different. Secondly, there is no variation (at least not that I am aware of) amongst ministers in the URCNA in the...er...exceptions (OK, there, I said it!) we take.


Chris said...


I appreciated your comment. If I could just add a few things by way of clarification:

My understanding of the way the Presbyterian system has worked, historically, is that during examination on the floor of Presbytery, a candidate presents his views, period. Then the responsibility falls on the Presbytery to decide whether any of his views constitute an exception to the Westminster Standards.

That makes the two closer, though, I grant, not the same.

The point, as I see it, is that both sets of standards -- Westminster and the 3 Forms -- go beyond what should be said in their language at certain points. It is at precisely those points that both traditions must practice system subscription. I just think that Presbyterians are more conscious of it and more honest about it (precisely because WS say a LOT that doesn't necessarily have to be said).


Abruzzi said...


Briefly, what, in your opinion, does the TFU say that is beyond what should be confessed (not, what could be stated more clearly, but what could be deleted)?

Chris said...

Hi Mike,

I grant that the TFU don't say a lot that is beyond what should be confessed -- especially when compared to the Westminster Standards. That is why my sympathies are more with the Continental tradition. I hate to use Matt's blog to promote my own, but to keep from repeating myself, let me invite you to visit www.mgkline4me.wordpress.com I would appreciate any feedback you might offer.

Matt Morgan said...

Sorry guys to dump this and run - busy week.

I agree that some differences between the TFU and Westminster could explain how we go about confessing the doctrines contained therein.

But I think the fundamental point needs to be raised: if confessionalism REALLY takes serious the words of those confessions, then what is the point of confessing, "All synods or councils, since the Apostles' times, whether general or particular, may err; and many have erred. Therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith, or practice; but to be used as a help in both" (WCF 31.3)?

Note that it doesn't simply say synods and councils err. It gives you the implications for such position, namely, that they are not to be made the rule of faith or practice.

It seems to me that that a Strict Subscriptionist doesn't really want to make that kind of concession, certainly not based on the way he speaks about the Confessions.

That is the more foundational point that I was really hoping to address.