On The Hermeneutics of Subscription: Part 3

This article is the third part of an article called "On the Hermeneutics of Subscription." Read part 1 and part 2

Scotland and Ireland Prior to the Adopting Act

In the beginning of his treatment of the background of the Adopting Act, Charles Briggs noted that in 1693 the General Assembly of Scotland allowed for a rather clear-cut subscription statement.  That 1693 vow was: “I do sincerely own and declare the above Confession of Faith, approved by former General Assemblies of this Church, and ratified by law in the year 1690, to be the Confession of my faith, and that I own the doctrine therein contained to be the true doctrine, which I will constantly adhere to.”[1]  Later in 1698 the Synod of Ulster resolved: “That young men licensed to preach be obliged to subscribe to our Confession of Faith and all the articles thereof, as the confession of their faith.”[2]  Further, Briggs noted that this 1698 Act was renewed in 1705. He contends that, “the year 1705 was the first formal subscription among Protestant churches”,surely a dubious claim in light of the Elizabethan churches a century earlier, not to mention the reformed churches in Europe in the sixteenth century.  Still later Briggs reported that the Synod of Belfast, “In 1716 debated the matter, and expressed themselves as in favor of including subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Toleration Act.”  Hence, there was some precedent for the American style of subscription, and many of these could provide a hermeneutic for the Adopting Act.

In fact Leonard Trinterud,an antagonist of subscription,does an able job of recounting some of the controversies in Scottish Presbyterianism over subscription.  He admits that in 1690 and in 1696 the General Assembly of Scotland both allowed subscription to the Confession of Faith as a test of ministerial communion and further forbade anyone to “speak, write, preach, teach, or print anything whatsoever that would be contrary to or even inconsistent with, any view contained in the Confession.”[3]

Some of the earliest Colonial practice is also seen in the adoption of the Heads of Agreement (authored by Cotton Mather).  One could re-read such standards and find the earliest colonists adopting an Americanized version of the Westminster Confession of Faith (hereafter, WCF) without equivocation.[4] The record itself is unambiguous.  “Own” was the common usage of that day, as in the 1711 Scottish terminology below, which probably inspired the 1784 British “Formula and Rules” above. 

For students of confessional history, Ian Hamilton has provided a fine study,[5] chronicling the decline of confessional orthodoxy among Scottish Presbyterians from 1730-1879.  In that American Presbyterianism followed a similar course, all those who wish to see an antecedent to our own symbol- ogical history would do well to absorb this chapter from Scottish history.

Hamilton notes that the Westminster Confession of Faith held a position of prominence among confessional documents within the reformed Presbyterianism of an earlier day.  Proceeding chronologically, Hamilton begins by detailing the Scottish subscription formulae of the early eighteenth century.  Documenting that from 1711 on, the General Assembly of Scotland required a strict subscription (The value for this as interpretive of the 1729 American Adopting Act is yet to be assessed.), Hamilton discusses the early evolution of the pertinent ordination vow, illuminating how it eroded from unequivocal adoption of the WCF as “ones own” and as “believing the whole doctrine contained” to an ambiguous and less specific adoption of the confession as containing a “general sense.”  Hamilton shows how this considerably weakened the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Scottish church by 1840.  One of the real contributions by Hamilton is the documentation refuting the claim that prior to the 1840s Scottish Presbyterianism accepted a latitudinarian approach to subscription.

In a subsequent chapter chronicling the atonement controversy in the 1840s, Hamilton opines that this was the beginning of evident deterioration in confessional orthodoxy.  Hamilton continues his anatomy of erosion, as the Union discussion between Scottish Presbyterians from 1863-1873 shows more cleavage.  Growing theological laxity is seen when during the Union discussions, the participants maintain that they still believe and have an unwavering commitment to the WCF, despite clear denials of particulars.  If this sounds familiar to what American Presbyterians would hear a few decades later, that is likely due to the organic strain of the common theological virus.  In fact, it may be that precedent-setting American Presbyterian cases, such as those surrounding Charles A. Briggs, were indeed guided by these controversies.  Briggs himself (Although Hamilton does not extend these lessons to the American venue) no doubt, was aware of this very strategy, noting its success.  This chapter in Scottish history should at least be seen as a probable precursor to Briggs and other American trends in terms of confessional orthopraxy. 

The main point could be summed up briefly in Hamilton’s own words as follows: “The effect . . . was to undermine the belief that truth was absolute and unchanging, and to initiate the conviction that it was rather relative, genetic, and evolutionary.”[6]  In that this evolution was a critical chapter in the life of confessional history, this work is essential for any wishing to understand the meaning of subscription to the WCF.  Hamilton identifies the pathology of confessional relaxation in a sequence moving first from a general ambiguity over the “sense” of the confession, to particular denials (principally over the atonement and other particularities of Calvinism), then on to the failure in practice to discipline, onward to a zeal for union valued over purity, finally to actual revision of the confession and dilution of the subscription vow itself.  For those who have seen this repeated in American Presbyterianism, this could be a helpful caution for the future.[7]

Moreover, it should be noted that this era of Scottish history was important for American Presbyterians in two regards.  First, it was substantially the same drama which would be re-enacted on American soil a few years later.  Second and more importantly, the Scottish views in the early 1700s, in that the tie between Scottish and American Presbyterianism was still very close,even almost umbilically connected,form some of the best interpretive backdrop from which to understand the intent of the American Presbyterian Adopting Act and the subsequent affirmations of the WCF in American Presbyterianism.  Perhaps therefore, one can view issues more objectively if viewed in another venue.  Hopefully our understanding of the need and tenor of confessional subscription will be aided by this, even if it has the potential of overturning some of the work by latter-day American Presbyterian historians who favored confessional relaxation.

Trinterud also notes that a Scottish candidate, if answering the licensure vows in the affirmative, then had to sign this subscription formula:

I,______ do hereby declare, that I do sincerely own and believe the whole doctrine contained in the Confession of Faith, approved by the General Assemblies of this National Church, and ratified by law, in the year 1690, and frequently confirmed by divers Acts of Parliament since that time, to be the truths of God; and I do own the same as the confession of my faith;  As likewise, I do own the purity of government and discipline now so happily established therein; which doctrine, worship, and Church government I am persuaded is founded on the Word of God, and agreeable thereto; And I promise that through the grace of God, I shall firmly and constantly adhere to the same, and to the utmost of my power, shall in my station assert, maintain, and defend the said doctrine, worship, discipline, and government . . . I shall in my practice conform myself to the said worship, and submit to the said discipline and government, and never endeavor, directly nor indirectly, the prejudice or subversion of the same; and I promise, that I shall follow no divisive course from the present establishment in this Church, renouncing all doctrines, tenets, or opinions whatsoever, contrary to or inconsistent with the said doctrine, worship, and government of this Church.[8]

These are hardly instances of a loose practice.

These vignettes from Great Britain are essential pre-history for the American events.  We may therefore, arrive at a nuance for the meaning of the term “subscription;” yet if an understanding is found of the intent as used prior to the Adopting Act, then there is still a need to ascertain what the adopters themselves intended.

3. The question at the epicenter of this collection of studies is: What did those contemporaneous with the 1729 Adopting Act intend by subscription?  Since many of these essays (particularly by Barker, Knight, Smith, Whitlock, and Urish) discuss this, I will merely refer the reader to them.  Elsewhere, I argue (in a later chapter) that there was a nearly uniform interpretation from the time of the Adopting Act until the late nineteenth century.

A point seldom discussed is the testimony of those who opposed confessional subscription.  These opponents, too, may help clarify the actual practice; for on occasion, even our adversaries understood Presbyterians to be standing by subscription.  For example, Benjamin Franklin puts into the mouth of his character, Mr. T. [the fictional protagonist for confessionalism in a pamphlet ascribed to Franklin]: “We ought to abide by the Westminster Confession of Faith; and he that does not, ought not to preach in our Meetings.”[9] Opponents of either subscriptionism or confessionalism appeared to understand the Presbyterian church to practice confessional subscription.[10]  We must recognize that had the church not been ardently confessional, no such opposition would have continued or been sustained; unless we construe the opponents of subscription as arguing merely against a harmless straw man. 

Another caveat about interpretation is the reminder that, an exception ought not be confused with the rule.  Frequently, appeals for certain positions are made to a notorious case of insincerity (the Hemphill case); such exceptions ought not be confused with the rule. Others have focused on Hemphill (and other opponents to confessional subscription) to set the record straight.  The first history of American Presbyterianism provides some clarification in its remarks on Hemphill in his biographical sketch.  The Commission expressed their surprise at his adopting the Confession.  He [Hemphill] replied that he only intended to do so “as far as the fundamental articles were concerned.”[11]  He then inquired of the commission what the fundamentals were.  Because they failed to enumerate such, his defender (Franklin) assessed the view of the Commission (which was later approved by the Synod): “they would make all fundamental to serve a turn;” thus the bias of Franklin, the Deist.[12]  A satire of Hemphill, published in 1735 puts these sentiments in Hemphill’s mind, that “original sin was as ridiculous as imputed righteousness.”[13]  Certainly, Hemphill’s manner of subscription must not be the rule, but the exception.

Also, Webster gives an explanation for the Synod’s disavowal of Alexander Craighead, an action sometimes used to argue that the Synod was not fully confessional.  Craighead, however, was arguing for something more.  He pushed for public adoption,not merely of the WCF,but of the original Solemn League and Covenant.[14]  He evidently agitated (albeit uncharitably) for the Synod to “revive the Solemn League and Covenant.”[15]  When they would not, he was charged with censoriousness, and the 1743 Synod of Philadelphia’s denouncement of such excessive zeal is best understood,not as denying or diluting the Adopting Act,but as a response to a divisive spirit and an attempt to impose, in Tennant’s words “the rigid Cameronian scheme.”[16]  Thus the Synod, neither denied adoption, but neither did it go so far as to agree with the imposition of the Solemn League and Covenant, nor with the censoriousness of Craighead.

Even Jonathan Dickinson, an amicable foe of subscription, admits the meaning of subscription at the time, as denying mental reservation or commitment to a subset of creedal articles.  Dickinson in 1728 gave his understanding of subscription as: “I take a Subscription to imply a solemn Declaration to the World, that we believe the Articles subscribed to be the Mind and Will of God, free of all Error and Mistake.  A Subscription in any laxer sense, is to open a Door to all the Unsincerity in the World.”[17]  One’s opponents may sometime misunderstand one’s views.  On the other hand, they may also hear such views with clarity, and provide corroboration of the ideas of people at the time.  By highlighting opponents, the critics of subscription assist in confirming its original denotation.  Contemporaneous witnesses,even if hostile,may help illuminate original intent.

4. What, if anything, from these earlier strands of tradition are we justified in accepting or rejecting?

One of the concerns of these authors is the desire to be fair to history, and not prematurely confuse our own blaring concerns with those of an earlier age.  It is a question well worth considering: Even if an earlier age held to a stricter or looser view, ought we in our day hold to the same view?  Of course, good reasons might be (and have been) proffered for either answer.  It would be another gratifying outcome if this volume should first answer the question of what our forefathers held and why?  If we find ourselves in continuity with them, and adopt their position, that can only come as a second step.

However, all too often, even the finest of historians and church-men are guilty of proof-texting church history, similar to a fundamentalistic approach to biblical exegesis.  Frequently, while in the pursuit to buttress our present position, we read back into the past, and attempt to make our forefathers speak the same word as we do.  As Luther phrased it, we take this web of issues and may twist it into a `nose of wax’ to reflect our own biases.  In some cases, that is no doubt correct, while in others it is illegitimate.

Most of us would benefit from a dividing of the very important question about subscription.  I also believe that in the process we will learn some valuable things both about ourselves and our parents in the faith.  What I suggest is that we first interpret what our forefathers intended, with as little eisegeting as possible. Courage is called for, for we may find that we disagree with them; or that they disagree with us.  Yet, it is not always helpful to blur the “is/was” and the “ought.” Our predecessors should certainly be given the right to define for themselves what they intended and how they subscribed.

Then a second and separate question (Should we follow their train?) can be examined, but only after we have a clear understanding with which to begin. Efforts which compare the 1990s to the 1690s or 1720s, with either too much similarity or too little continuity may stand in need of correction, in that they may be but impositions of our own ideas read back into history.  The history and the normative ecclesiology ought to be kept separate, unless there is a presupposition, that the one will automatically follow the other.  If that second area (normative ecclesiology) is kept separate, it liberates us to hear from earlier siblings in our spiritual family.

Hence, the two questions,which are applicable in nearly every age,that are really behind all these essays are: (1) What did the best of the tradition of our Presbyterian forefathers hold as the wisest manner of confessing orthodoxy? and (2) Ought we hold to the same manner of confessional practice today, or have the dynamics changed so as to justify a departure from their earlier manner?  The second question is the “payoff” question, but we will not approach this with a bald pragmatism characteristic of William James.  All too often, the impatient and a-historical among us insist on attempting to answer the second query before the first, which is as naive as it is imprudent.

I realize, of course, that if Query Number One is answered in one way, it might disappoint many a modern.  Yet surely the pursuit of truth must be held in higher esteem than the psychological affect or comfort zones of homo modernus. Conversely, even if Query Number One is answered, say in favor of the Old School, that does not automatically compel ecclesiological bodies to continue such tradition.  There are times to change the tradition,if inferior or not biblically rooted,and there should be corresponding bold justifications of a superior paradigm to do so.  Hence another underlying question will be: “If the early tradition of Presbyterianism was (or was not) subscription, upon what basis (or change of bases) do we continue or discontinue that tradition?”  After answering the first Query, what is the justification to change?  Have times, people, ecclesiological issues, or ministry changed so as to justify the jettisoning of the earlier tradition?  And upon what sufficient grounds?  Or, was that tradition mistaken from the beginning?

These essays address those central questions.  Still a word of caution is in order, lest we galvanize subscription into a golden calf.  By itself, it will neither heal nor preserve.  That is rather easily demonstrated; further, it is such an instance of stating the more than obvious, i.e., that confessional subscription alone will not preserve the purity of the church, that it should by now produce yawns when uttered as a defense for non-subscription.  Its very utterance, still misses the real issue and once again blurs the is/ought distinction.  Even under the best case scenario, confessional subscription must also be supported by the entire community, reinforced, and if lacking, be disciplined.

Perhaps Drysdale is correct, both in his analysis for subscription, as well as in his estimate of its maximum utility:

For subscription, to be free and unoppressive yet secure, must be preceded by thoroughly good and efficient training in the theology to be taught, and followed up by a process of constantly operative discipline by mutual consent.  They forgot, too, that the easy-going state of goodwill toward all speculative tendencies was only a latitudinarian or intellectual charity,the charity of an easy-going and secularly-minded indifferentism, and very far removed indeed from the Christian charity which, in a very different sense, believeth all things.  They forgot that the charity of speculative intellectualism is painfully deficient in enthusiasm, self-sacrifice, and life.[18]


[1]. Briggs, p. 201.

[2]. Briggs, op cit.  References to p. 201, 202, 203 respectively.

[3]. Leonard Trinterud, The Forming of an American Tradition, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1949), p. 39.

[4]. cf. p. 275, The Great Works of Christ in America by Cotton Mather (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979).

[5]. The Erosion of Calvinist Orthodoxy: Seceders and Subscription in Scottish Presbyterianism by Ian Hamilton (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 1990).

[6]. Hamilton, op. cit., p. 123.

[7]. Other venues are also instructive.  In a study of late seventeenth century Genevan Formularies, Martin Klauber has pointed out how even the progeny of the orthodox, in this case Jean-Alphonse Turrettini, “contributed to the demise of ... Reformed scholasticism through the abrogation of the Formula of Consensus,” so reducing subscription to the bare essentials by 1725 that the Genevan Company of Pastors, a century and a half after the death of Calvin, voted to alter their ordination Formula, thus creating a lesser form of subscription henceforth.  Consequently, the earlier standard of subscription prior to 1725 is seen to be a clear one, in need of change only if the requirements for ordination were lessened. See, “Jean-Alphonse Turretinni and the Abrogation of the Formula of Consensus in Geneva,” Martin I. Klauber, Westminster Theological Journal, Fall 1991, Vol. 53, no. 2, pp. 326, 336.  In another study, “Reformed Orthodoxy in Transition: Benedict Pictet (1655-1724) and Enlightened Orthodoxy in Post-Reformation Geneva,” Martin Klauber mentions that the 1675 Formula Consensus “had to be signed by all graduates of Reformed academies as a prerequisite for ordination.”  Further, he cites Benedict Pictet (1655-1724) as a moderate representative who, “defended the requirement that candidates for ordination at the Academy sign the Formula.  He did so for several reasons, including the preservation of the unity of the faith, at least within the Swiss confederation.  In addition, Pictet feared that the orthodoxy of Dort could potentially be lost. He exclaimed: `Take care, should you remove the Formula. . . .  I fear for the future; I see that the exhortations will be useless; one will attack the Synod of Dort . . . the confessions of the faith. I fear for the establishment of Arminianism and I dread even worse things; the minds of the century are extremely disposed to innovation. . . .’  Pictet countered the charges that the requirement for subscription was divisive by saying that such a formulary had never caused disunion among the Genevan Church and those of Holland, Switzerland, the University of Marburg, and many others.”  Cf. W. Fred Graham, ed., Later Calvinism: International Perspectives (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, vol. XXII, 1994), p. 98.

Brian Armstrong, “Semper Reformanda: The Case of the French Reformed Church, 1559-1620,” confirms that by the time of the French Synod of Privas (1612), “a solemn detailed oath of complete subscription to the confession was drawn up and passed; all pastors in the Huguenot church were required to sign it, and it effectively closed off the possibility of any further substantial change of the confession; . . .  The oath begins, `I, the undersigned, do receive and approve the entire contents of the Confession of Faith of the Reformed churches of this Kingdom, do promise to persevere in it to the very end, and not to believe nor teach anything which does not conform to it.’” (W. Fred Graham, ed. op. cit., pp. 136-137.)  When compared to other subscription formulae, a consistent ethos within the early post-reformation tradition is detected.

[8]. Trinterud, p. 303.

[9]. Will Barker, “The Hemphill Case, Franklin, and Subscription to the Westminster Confession,” American Presbyterians, Vol. 69, no. 4 (Winter, 1991), p. 250.

[10]. Cf. Hume’s reference in n. 21 above.

[11]. Richard Webster, in his A History of the Presbyterian Church in America from its Origin until the year 1760 (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian Historical Society, 1857), p. 419.

[12]. Webster, p. 420.

[13]. Ibid.

[14]. Webster, p. 434-435.

[15]. Webster, p. 435.

[16]. Webster, p. 436.

[17]. Cf. H. Shelton Smith, Robert T. Handy, and Lefferts A. Loetscher, American Christianity: An Historical Interpretation with Representative Documents (New York: Scribner’s, 1960), 1: 266.

[18]. Drysdale, p. 510.


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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