He who hears the shema drinks the shekar!

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

B.B. Warifeld on Confessional Subscription (Part 1)

"Among the causes of the present appearance of restlessness with reference to the Westminster Standards, the first place is undoubtedly due to the overstrictness prevailing in some churches, in the formula of subscription which is required of office-bearers. And it is worthy of notice that where the formula seems overstrict, dissatisfaction seems to be most widespread, most pronounced, and most difficult to satisfy....In a word, a public confession [of faith], by virtue of the very fact that it is public, cannot be, and ought not to be pretended to be, just the expression of his faith which one accepts it as representing his faith would have framed had he only himself to consider. The most we can expect, and the most we have right to ask is, that each one may be able to recognize it as an expression of the system of truth which he believes. To go beyond this and seek to make each of a large body of signers accept the [Westminster] 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 subscription overreaches itself and becomes little better than no subscription; and, on the other, that it begets a spirit of petty, carping criticism which raises objection to forms of statement that in other circumstances would not appear objectionable.

Where the formulat of acceptance is such that no one signs without some mental reservation, some soon learn to sign without reference to mental reservation; and gross heterodoxy becomes gradually safe, because there is no one so wholly without sin that his conscience permits him to cast the first stone. That such a state of things has not been unknown, the history of Scottish Moderatism may teach us. That in the estimation of some, some of its features are not wholly unknown now, there are not lacking phenomena which may indicate....Now such a state of affairs is a great evil; and the dangers attending it have never been better pointed out than Dr. Charles Hodge, who writes: 'To adopt every proposition contained in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms is more than the vast majority of our ministers either do or can do. To make them profess to do it is a great sin. It hurts their consciences. It fosters a spirit of evasion and subterfuge. It forces them to take creeds in a non-natural sense. It at once vitiates and degrades. There are few greater evils connected with establishments than the overwhelming temptations which they offer to make men profess what they do not believe. Under such strict requirements, men make light of professions, and are ready to adopt any creed which opens the door to wealth of office. The overstrict the world over are the least faithful'

Not less surely, however, does overstrictness of formula wound tender consciences and produce a restlessness as over against the creed itself to all the propositions of which they are obliged to assent as the profession of their faith, even when they would not find these propositions objectionable when considered only as one statement of faith they profess. Tender consciences must revolt from a confession to which they are too closely bound, if they do not find themselves in absolute agreement with every word; and revolt once begun, battens on what it feeds on, until a great war breaks out against the Confession with which, nevertheless, most of the combatants are in substantial agreement. Thus, overstrictness in the formula is the real account often to be given of what emerges as objection against the creed, rather than against the formula. Relief is to be sought in such a relaxation of the formula as will give all the liberty to individuals which is consistent with the Church's witness to the truth. What is needed seems to us admirably expressed by Dr. Marshall Lang in a speech in the Established Presbytery of Glasgow, advocating the change of formula which has since been accomplished in that Church: 'The point they desired to emphasize was this,' he is reported as saying, 'that they did not bind men to the mere letter. They did not insist that a man should accept all the propositions and all the phraseology of the Confession. What they asked was that a man should honestly and truly subscribe to the system of truth that was presented in the Confession of Faith, and not merely to the words of the letter in which it was presented. He thought a substantial relief was given to persons of scrupulous conscience.' So far as the present agitation in the Scotch churches arises from this cause and tends to this result, it is an effort to attain a situation as over against the Standards which the American churches have always enjoyed, and it must have the hearty sympathy of every American Presbyterian.

This advocacy of a liberal formula, however, is not to be understood as if we could at all accord with those who would so relax the formula as to make the Confession of Faith little more than a venerable relic of a past age, still honored as such by the Church. Such a change as that made in 1816 by the Church of Holland by which ministers were not longer pledged to the Standards, because (quia), but only in so far as (quatenus) they accord with the Word, is justly pointed to...as fatal. That there are, nevertheless, some in the Scotch churches who might desire it, seems to be hinted by some words....Unfortunately, there are some even who act as if this were all that the present very strict formula bound them to, as was evinced, for example, by the amazing plea put in by Mr. James Stuart, author of that very remarkable book, The Principles of Christianity, when arraigned before the Presbytery of Edinburgh. Nevertheless, it is surely not so difficult as Principal David Brown expresses himself as thinking, to frame a formula which will 'let in all the right men and keep out all wrong'. The American churches have such a formula. Of course it lies in the courts of the Church to decide what is and what is not of the system, and Church courts are not infallible, nor always faithful. But Church courts can afford, and do venture, to hold men strictly to the terms of a liberal formula, when they could not to an illiberal one. Overstrictness demands and begets laxity in performance; while a truly liberal but conservative formula binds all essentially sound men together against laxity. In pleading for a liberal formula, therefore, we wish it distinctly understood that we do not plead either for a lax formula, or much less for a lax administration of any formula -- within which an essential dishonesty lurks. The American formula appears to us to be the ideal one, and as nothing more lax than it would be acceptable or safe, certainly a lax administration of it would be unendurable, and, as we have said, essentially dishonest."

("The Presbyterian Churches and the Westminster Confession," The Presbyterian Review, Vol. 10, No. 40, 1889, pp. 648ff.)


(1) Warfield's day was not unlike our own -- namely, the Reformed faith is (a) being discounted by those that want to so minimize the Confession to point where it becomes a 'mere Christianity and (b) being defended by those that desire to uphold a 'strict(er) subscription' to the Standards. And yet Warfield refuses to go down either of these roads (in good Old Princeton fashion).

(2) Warfield seems to recognize that these extreme positions [i.e. substance subscription and strict subscription] very much play off one another. I've long suspected this, so it's always nice when someone like Warfield agrees with you! When Confessional subscription is continually shoved down someone's throat in an overstrict way, it has the rather unintended consequence of making men even more apt to revolt against it. And when men start to drift away from the system of doctrine, it seems to make the Strict Confessionalists bang their 'overstrict' drum louder and louder. It's still worthy of note a century later "that where the (confessional) formula seems overstrict, dissatisfaction seems to be most widespread, most pronounced, and most difficult to satisfy." Indeed, things haven't changed all that much at all.

(3) The 'serious evils' that Warfield attributes to strict subscription are not imaginary. If you afford a man no place to issue scruples, it will invariably drive them underground. That's exactly what happened in the Free Church (Scotland) as well as the CRC (US). And if you haven't witnessed "a spirit of petty, carping criticism" over the Confession first hand in your Reformed church, then (a) you are extremely fortunate and (b) you should do your best to never leave!

(4) Warfield & Hodge show exactly how the main of conservative American Presbyterianism has practiced 'subscription'! Some today act as if this is some sort of a 'modern' view...when in fact it has a fairly long and established pedigree in American Presbyterianism.

(5) Warfield very boldly announces that because the Confession is public in nature, it cannot speak perfectly for the individual to his exact personal beliefs. Now there's something you don't hear too often today! I suspect because it sounds far too 'slippery' and leaves too many loose ends untied. But when you finally understand system subscription in its Old School Presbyterian sense, then you understand how Warfield can argue this way.

How does Warfield avoid the 'substance subscription' pitfall? We'll take that up in a subsequent post, based on the same article referenced above. Stay tuned....