On The Hermeneutics of Subscription

Interpretation is a difficult art, nearly as much so with a hermeneutic of history as with a hermeneutic of Scripture. Of course, the former both is governed by more certain principles and also is more rewarding. Still, many of the historic debates in ecclesiastical communions are in no small part intertwined with certain hermeneutical decisions. That is the case for any who seek an understanding of the crucial set of issues discussed in this work. Several hermeneutical matters will be of paramount importance. This volume could be considered a success if it at least begins to settle some of the hermeneutical issues. Several will recur, such as:

  1. What was the meaning of the term “subscription” itself?
  2. What did fellow-Christians prior to the 1729 Adopting Act mean by subscription?
  3. What did those contemporaneous with and after the 1729 Adopting Act intend by subscription?
  4. What, if anything, from these earlier strands of tradition are we justified in accepting or rejecting?

This essay will serve to introduce a few of these matters, which will be thoroughly discussed in the remaining chapters.

1. First, as to the meaning of the term “subscription,” part of the difficulty is that this word, like many others, has a diversity of meanings. Some of the difficulty in arriving at the meaning of this crucial term arises because it bears several distinct connotations. Recognition of difference in nuance is imperative in understanding the very meaning of subscription. It can, and is used to, mean any of the following within the ecclesiastical literature reviewed.

a) To simply sign, as in to publicly affix one’s signature and reputation to a document to provide authenticity; as in a legal deposition or protestation. For example, Charles Briggs refers to several instances of this practice at the time of the Westminster Assembly.[1] Also during the Reformation colloquies, various proponents would frequently sign their name to their theses as a sign of authenticity.[2]

b) To formally commit oneself to a cause or to raise funds, as the practice in early American Presbyterianism to subscribe to pay for ministers’ widows’ pensions. In this case, subscription indicated an earnest pledge to contribute funds to a charity or ministry.

c) To sign as an indication of joining some ministerial communion. In American Presbyterianism, when candidates, licentiates, or translating ministers signed the presbytery roll book, they were said to “subscribe.” Still today, this is done in some presbyteries.

d) To endorse a creed or signify agreement. Subscription during the time of the later Elizabethan Archbishops, in their attempt to prosecute any who did not endorse the Thirty-Nine Articles, is an example of this.

Hence, if one were to perform a computer search throughout the existing corpus of presbyteriana, and mechanically list all occurrences of the term “subscription,” still a hermeneutical task would remain: What is subscription to the confession? However, at the outset, one (or more) of the above nuances is more at the center of our particular focus than the others. Thus, interpretation is essential, as is recognition of diversity of nuance.

2. This being understood, it is also necessary to raise the question: What did fellow-Christians prior to the 1729 Adopting Act mean by subscription? There was a definite pre-history, stemming at least from the Reformation. Reformation creeds themselves were frequently subscribed, even if that technical term was not used. For example, in Calvin’s Geneva, Calvin himself advocated the formal adoption of a Catechism (1536) by all citizens. The Ministers of the Presbytery (Company of Pastors) frequently signed documents indicating both their authenticity, as well as their affirmation. Numerous other Reformation creeds and confessions were signed. Later, the First Scots Confession, and subsequently, even polity documents, were subscribed. Beza and others subscribed the French Confession of Faith at the Synod of Emden in 1571.[3] The Lutheran tradition of subscription at the Reformation was clear when it is remembered that certain leading Lutheran leaders were not allowed to subscribe the Augsburg Confession (1530) because they demurred at one particular article concerning the uniquely Lutheran view of the sacrament. James R. Payton, Jr. observes, “Their request to subscribe with a proviso was denied: subscription had to be to the confession in toto or not at all. The rigor with which this defense of an unqualified confessional subscription was maintained in the midst of exceptionally dangerous circumstances speaks volumes regarding the attitude of the early Protestants toward a confession.”[4]

The Lutherans subscribed the 1537 Smalcald Articles.[5] The First Helvetic Confession was formerly read before each congregation annually, and ministers in that communion are still required to promise, “to teach according to the direction of God’s Word and the Basle Confession derived therefrom.”[6] So popular was subscription that by 1573, graduates of Oxford were required to subscribe prior to receiving degrees, while by 1576 subscription was applied even to entrants over the age of sixteen.[7] It is well-known that Scottish Christians subscribed national covenants in 1581, in 1638, and took part in subscribing the Solemn League and Covenant with the Westminster Divines (“Wherein we all subscribe, and each one of us for himself with our hands lifted up to the most high God, do swear”[8]) in 1643.

Thus, even from these few references, it is clear that the first generation of the Reformation churches,committed to biblical truth,had no qualms about composing, embracing, requiring, and subscribing to biblical re-statements of the faith. So accepted was this, that there was very little debate within Protestants over the propriety of creedal subscription, except among the Anabaptists and other fringe groups of the Reformation. Debates, however, would arise later.

Subscription in Great Britain Prior to the Adopting Act

Nature abhors a vacuum. So does the interpretation of church history. The 1729 Adopting Act, a critical event for American Presbyterianism and the focal point of many of these chapters, did not crop up ex nihilo. It had a rich pre-history and a context which assists us in understanding its meaning and intent. Accordingly, a survey of reformed implementations in European settings prior to the American Adopting Act will be helpful. Concentrating primarily on the practices or attempts at subscription in England, Scotland, and Ireland, this study can fill in some of background of the period prior to the Adopting Act. The primary focus on the ethos of subscription within the United Kingdom is justified on two grounds: (1) Our own Confession was rooted in the soil of Great Britain, having been produced by the Assembly at Westminster, London (1643-1648), and (2) The majority of our colonial forefathers were from British, Scottish, or Irish stock. The implicit thesis, of course, is that the Adopting Act itself adopted some of the practice and ideology of these,not springing as it were afresh from the head of Zeus, or without precedent. Moreover, a familiarity with these previous episodes can help inoculate against repeating the very same errors.

[1]. Charles Briggs, American Presbyterianism (New York: Scribner’s, 1885), p. 63 refers to certain divines whose names were signed to a tract in 1643. Cf. also, p. 342.

[2]. Jill Raitt, The Colloquy of Montbeliard (New York: Oxford, 1993), 30-31, 74-76.

[3]. Robert Kingdon, Geneva and The Consolidation of the French Protestant Movement, 1564-1572 (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967), p. 125.

[4] James R. Payton, Jr., “The Background and Significance of the Adopting Act of 1729,” Pressing Toward the Mark (Philadelphia: Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986), p. 134.

[5] The Creeds of Christendom, ed. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), vol. 1, 254.

[6]. Ibid., p. 388.

[7]. Ibid., pp. 618-619.

[8]. John L. Carson and David W. Hall, eds. To Glorify and Enjoy God: A Commemoration of the Westminster Assembly (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1994), p. 295.

Confessional Subscription is a series composed of essays from the book The Practice of Confessional Subscription edited by David Hall, written by confessionally Reformed authors throughout history. The authors of this collected work of articles write from within the Reformed tradition about different aspects of confessional subscription and what it means to pastors, scholars, and laymen. This series is a must-read for anyone who desires to understand historic and contemporary ideas on what it means for one to subscribe to a confession. To purchase the book, visit ReformedResources.org.

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